Undead Race Science

Drawing of a human skull

“Brain measurement and its sister art, head measurement, have no doubt had more to do with our distinctions of races than have their modes of thought or of life” Jacques Finot, 1911. “In fact, researchers can classify human variation by continent quite accurately using only data from the human skull.” Quillette, 2019.

I have better things to do with my time. I have other writing to do. I have laundry that needs to be folded. The catbox hasn’t been scooped today. There’s a hammer out in the garage I could be hitting my head with. Any of these things would be preferable to responding to this awful Quillette article on race science. Yet here I am.

I’m not the only one to find this article troublesome or to see that it is while it poses as a book review of Angela Saini’s new book Superior: The Return of Race Science it is really no such thing. Nor am I the first to make the argument that race science is the vampire science. Pronounced dead over and over and over it rises from the grave to shamble a while mumbling incoherently about “open questions” and “IQ scores” and “heritability” and “climate” despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that we have moved beyond race science. The Quillette article notes this consensus: “This contention is a common one, officially endorsed by a number of professional organizations and espoused by many celebrated intellectuals” but then dismisses it. The article then trots out a series of tired arguments as if they were new and novel and the professionals and intellectuals had never heard them before and found them wanting. Let’s look at some of these threadbare arguments, shall we?

False premise 1. Race is “a humble biological concept.”

According to Quillette, race is a relatively straightforward biological concept and the critics of the concept of race are guilty of muddying the biology by confusing “race with morality, making it an affront to human dignity and a threat to metaphysical equality.”  In reality, the article argues, race is obvious to anyone who honestly looks at people:

The primary reason that natural philosophers began to classify humans into different races is that human populations look different from one another. Their skin colors, hair textures, facial structures, and stature all differ, often in predictable ways. Furthermore, these differences reflect their divergent geographical origins.

This statement is, quite simply, false. It betrays that the authors have done no research whatsoever into the history of the race concept. I have a long paper on this history that you are welcome to read. In short: people have always known that folks look different from each other but that is not the same thing as saying that they classified people into “different races.” Before the 18th century or so, no one thought that people could be divided into distinct groups that were more or less fixed. This is because there were no theories of organic form that would allow for that fixity. Look at that last phrase of the quotation above: organic form reflected “divergent geographic origins,” but not, as Quillette would have you believe, fixed because of that. Indeed most theories of organic form would have told you that if you moved to a different environment or climate, you would begin to look like the people who lived there, if not you then definitely your children who would be born there. Far from a racial concept, the pre-modern world was filled with theories of how people could and did change in appearance:

Flexibility, openness to change, the possibility of indeterminacy, wonder, and endless transformation distinguished such notions from what developed later. . . . Our inability to take such notions seriously reflects the deep and thorough-going way in which our consciousness has been shaped— distorted is not too strong a term—by a complex and multi-variegated process that rooted racism in modern culture. On the contrary, the longevity, omnipresence, variety, and constancy—to indulge a paradox—of proteanism demand that these notions be integrated into our understanding of the history of collective identity. (Braude 2011, 43–44).

So why did natural philosophers begin classifying people into races? Because of European colonialism. The idea that people could be classified into fixed races came from the colonies and filtered back into the European continent. Scholars like Suman Seth and Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra show how the race idea was inextricably linked to European colonialism and the need to justify the domination of the conquered and African slavery. The very idea of “race” was tainted from the very beginning. It was and is no humble biological concept but one that arose because of the necessity of justifying inequitable social arrangements. Quillette would have us shrug all of this off claiming “Enlightenment philosophers also took to classifying human differences for the mundane reason that such differences actually exist.” This is not only begging the question but is empirically false. There is an ugly history here and by hiding it Quillette is being irresponsible.

False premise 2. Racial divisions are principled scientific categories. “The claim that [racial] divisions are arbitrary” is false. 

How doe Quillette know this? Because:

 Noah Rosenberg and colleagues found that human genetic variation largely corresponds to broad geographic regions and, more compellingly, that it closely matches Johann Blumenbach’s 1781 classification of human morphological variation into five races: Caucasians, Americans (Amerindians), Ethiopians (Africans), Mongolians (East Asians), and Malaysians (Oceanians).

Thus, Quillette argues that Blumenbach’s division was correct: “Blumenbach’s typology is one of those Saini dismisses as “arbitrary” without offering any evidence or argument.”

Without getting into the details of Rosenberg’s study, let us suppose, counter-factually, that Rosenberg had found a different number. Pretty much whatever number you suppose, Quillette could have declared that the study proved that race was real by choosing a different18th or 19th century race scientist. Darwin argued in Descent of Man in 1871:

Man has been studied more carefully than any other organic being, and yet there is the greatest possible diversity amongst capable judges whether he should be classed as a single species or race, or as two (Virey), as three (Jacquinot), as four (Kant), five (Blumenbach), six (Buffon), seven (Hunter), eight (Agassiz), eleven (Pickering), fifteen (Bory St. Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawfurd), or as sixty-three, according to Burke.

But surely, further research showed the validity of Blumenbach’s taxonomy over the others, right? Of course not. Anthropologist George Dorsey almost six decades later:

Haeckel could only find twelve races in 1873, but a few years later succeeded in finding thirty-four. Topinard found sixteen in 1878, and a few years later discovered three more. Deniker also had difficulty wiht his count but in 1900 decided there were six ‘grand divisions,’ seventeen ‘divisions,’ and twenty-nine ‘races.’  (Dorsey 1928)

So, it looks to me that whatever racial division you come up with, there is no principled reason to choose it over any other. Pick a number and you can find a race theorist who will assure you that that number is the “real” number or races. Why is this the case? That question leads us to the next false premise.

False Premise 3: “Racial categories identify real phenotypic differences.” Among these differences are “skin colors, hair textures, facial structures, and stature [which] all differ, often in predictable ways.”

But why skin color, hair texture, etc? Why those traits and not others? Quillette offers no argument at all, but relies on our experience in a racialized culture not to question why skin color would be considered a racial marker. But scientifically speaking there is no reason why any particular trait should be singled out. Dorsey argued in 1928:

Of the dozens of attempted classifications of man by anatomical traits, no two agree. Presumably never will agree because there are no outstanding, sharply defined physical traits by which groups of mankind can be partitioned off from one another…. When the attempt is made to classify man by a combination of two or more of these traits, hopeless confusion results. When the attempt is made to combine as many as five physical traits, the proportion of ‘pure’ types becomes, as Ripley says, almost infinitesimal.

If you are going to scientifically classify people by phenotypical traits you assume that organisms are made of “traits” that somehow get mixed and matched into bodies. Given the holistic nature of bodies, this seems doubtful to start with, but leaves open the question: what traits do you choose? And how do you justify those choices? If you wanted to do this kind of racial classification in the first third of the twentieth century, Harvard was the place to go and Earnest Hooton was the professor to study with. You had to know a lot of anatomy and have a lot of patience because Hooton recommended measuring:

the form, color, and quantity or the hair, and its distribution in tracts; the color of the eyes and the form of the eyelid skin-folds; the form of the nasal cartilages, the form of the lips and of the external ear, the prominence of the chin; the breadth of the head relative to the its length; the length of the face; the sutural patterns, the presence or absence of a postglenoid tubercle and pharyngeal fossa or tubercle, prognathism, the form of the incisor teeth; the form of the vertebral border of the scapula, the presence or absence of a supracondyloid process or foramen of the humerus, the length or the forearm relative to the arm; the degree of bowing of the radius and the ulna; the length of the leg relative to to the thigh. This list is not, of course, exhaustive. (1931)

None of this work ever yielded anything definitive and by the mid-1930s even Hooton gave up the quest. Quillette would have us believe however that this outmoded and hopeless methodology is “scientific.”

False premise 3: “Genetic evidence strongly supports many everyday intuitions people have about human populations.”

The Quillette article is rife with equivocations. Despite its scientific pretensions it moves confusingly and irresponsibly among different ideas regarding human variation:

We are not particularly wedded to the word ‘race’ and would be happy to use ‘human population’ or ‘biogeographic ancestry group’ instead.

Quillette uses these three terms interchangeably but they mean different thingsA genetic population is not the same thing as a race. No geneticist would say that “African-American” as used on, for example, the US census, is a genetic population. Nor would they consider the “five great races” genetic populations. Yet Quillette leads us down a not-so-merry path telling us that our socialized “intuitions” (by which they obliviously mean Western, white people’s “intuitions”) are somehow supported by modern population genetics. Quillette urges us to confuse scientific and folk ideas about heredity and therefore misleads us about the scientific reality of race.

False premise 4: “The brain is not in some special category, uniquely impervious to selective forces; it is a product of evolution—just like bones, blood, and skin.”

This sentence is sort of true and sort of misleading. In our recent book, David Depew and I argue that our big brains allow us to create culture, which includes things like tools, shelter, clothing, etc. Our status as culture-creating animals is what can distinguish us from our zoological fellows. This means Quillette is wrong to claim “Humans are just another animal species: there is little reason to believe that they are fundamentally different from wolves, deer, or chimpanzees.”  But that is nonsense if only because only humans think about whether or not they are different than other species. Wolves don’t design complicated insurance systems. Deer don’t built cathedrals or go to war over transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation. Chimpanzees don’t write ill-informed articles about how darker-furred chimps are just dumber than lighter-furred chimps and get them published in Quillette.


When bears moved into the Arctic natural selection selected those bears with the traits needed to survive there. When humans moved to the Arctic they simply killed the animals living there and wore their warm coats to keep themselves warm. Our big brains allow us to remain anatomically the same in the Arctic as Africa whereas bears, lacking such brains, physically had to change over time to survive. Our cognitive ability is therefore much different than other physical traits. Quillette will have none of this:

In principle, cognitive ability is no less amenable to selection than stature, skin colour, muscle-fibre density, or any other trait. And there are reasons to believe that some environments may have presented ancestral humans with more cognitive challenges than others (although this is certainly a matter of ongoing scientific dispute).

Now, Quillette provides no argument as to how some environments put pressure on cognitive abilities that others do not. But, any knowledge of history shows that this is a standard line of scientific racism. Here is Joseph Tillinghast making the same argument back in 1902:

We are now prepared to appreciate the workings of the vitally important factor of natural selection. It is obvious that in West Africa natural selection could not have tended to evolve great industrial capacity and aptitude, simply because these were not necessary to survival. Where a cold climate and poor natural productiveness threaten constant destruction to those who cannot or will not put forth persistent effort, selection operates to eliminate them, and preserve the efficient. In torrid and bountiful West Africa, however, the conditions of existence have for ages been too easy to select the industrially efficient, and reject the inefficient.

See? Black folks are just dumber because they had it so easy in the jungle where fruit just falls from the trees. White folks, good Nordic folks, had to struggle to fight saber-tooth tigers all the time and that is why they are so smart! Sorry folks, it’s science! Or so Quillette would like us to believe by claiming this ugly history is irrelevant to their claims.

False premise 5: “When dealing with this topic, it’s useful to step back from any definitive assertion to contemplate a less divisive question: is it possible that human populations could differ in cognitive ability, at least in part, because of their different evolutionary histories?”

See how reasonable they are being? Just asking the question: isn’t it possible black people are just stupider than white people because of how they are from Africa and all? What? I’m just asking!

Since Quillette goes to great lengths to deny there are any social or political reasons for asking this not-at-all provocative question we are free to ask why they are asking it. What scientific question is at stake? It is very difficult to posit an answer outside the context of a racist society where such “cogitive differences” have huge social consequences.

And, to be clear, the history of race science has shown that the question is not a new one and that it has been explored in a lot of depth for over a century. And the research program proposed by Quillette has failed to establish any reasonable conclusion at all. If there were evolutionary reasons for differences in “cognitive capacity” among “races” we would know by now. It is reasonable to conclude that the question is no longer a reasonable one to ask.  How long must we suffer people with very questionable motivations asking it?


Braude, Benjamin. 2011. “How Racism Arose in Europe and Why It Did Not in the Near East.” In Racism in the Modern World: Historical Perspectives on Cultural Transfer and Adaptation, ed. Manfred Berg and Simon Wendt, 41–64. New York: Berghann.

Dorsey, George A. 1928. “Race and Civilization.” In Whither Mankind: A Panorama of Modern Civilization, edited by Charles A. Beard, 229–63. New York: Longmans, Green and Co.

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34 thoughts on “Undead Race Science

  1. By their idiot racist logic, shouldn’t Inuits and Tuaregs be exceeding white Europeans’ IQ scores because they’ve had to adapt to survive in even harsher climates than them?


      • Nowhere in the article they mentioned that colder environments make for selection on intelligence, that’s just a strawman.

        Liked by 1 person

      • They said “The humans that settled in different geographic regions subsequently came under different selection pressures (e.g. temperature, seasonality, altitude).” They are referring to the standard race science belief that humans became more intelligent due to the “selection pressures” of the colder climate. Those of us who track race science know what the lingo means.


    • Differences in climate *might* explain differences in cognitive ability but will not the only variable that influences selection pressures. dumb argument.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “Nowhere in the article they mentioned that colder environments make for selection on intelligence, that’s just a strawman.”

      No, your statement is the strawman … no one said that the Quillette article mentions that. Your comment doesn’t address the actual claim, which was about “their idiot racist logic” … that logic is discussed above.


      • It’s guilt by association, because no serious evolutionary theorist considers the cold winter hypothesis plausible.

        But I’ll bite and refute the allegedly actual claim.

        The actual claim is that humans have culture while animals do not, which somehow put us above being subjected to selective pressures.

        It does not. For one thing, animals have cultures too. Not on the scale and complexity of humans, but they do.

        For another, whether selective pressures have resulted in slightly different cognitive toolkits for different pops is debatable, what is not is that brains are a subject of evolution as a principle, as much as any other organ.

        And thirdly, it’s not purely a matter of cultural adaptation. You can see genetic adaptations for local environments like altitude genes in Tibetans, sickle-cell heterocygote advantage in regions riddled with malaria etc.

        So culture alone doesn’t mean we have surpassed evolution. Culture is a part of evolution, and gene-cultural evolution is also a thing.


      • 1. I do not deny that animals can have culture (or proto-culture), but clearly no one argues that our culture-building outstrips any other animal by several orders of magnitude. That is unique to us.
        2. “Brains are a subject of evolution” is obviously true and I do not ever deny this.
        3. Altitude genes and sickle cell may be used to identify genetic populations but those populations are defined by the presence or absence of those genes. It is a mistake to think that those are “racial” markers that map onto conventionally defined “races.” Further, such genetic adaptations are rare when compared to the huge cultural adaptations that make living in all sorts of environments possible for human beings. The evidence for the latter is much more robust and plentiful than the kinds of genetic adaptations you’ve mentioned.
        4. “Culture alone doesn’t mean we have surpassed evolution.” And I have never argued that it does. In fact, I’ve co-written a book on the interactions of evolutionary biologists and cultural anthropologist in the 20th century which explores these notion. https://altrightorigins.com/2017/08/19/darwinism-democracy-race/

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel says Maoris are smarter than white people based on his observations of both populations from living among them. He says Maoris have to do lots of problem-solving all the time. Of course, he doesn’t claim any racial component to this, he just lays it out as what he’s seen. Thinking about it, it seems to me that any hunter-gatherer population would have to be pretty smart. These idiots who talk about how easy hunter-gatherers have it don’t even stop to think about what it’s really like. All I know is what I learned from an audio course by Brian Fagan which touches on it at a few spots, as well as the bit of discussion in GG&S. But that gave me more knowledge of hunter-gatherers than the entire population of race-science scholars.

    Liked by 2 people

    • As I recall, Jared Diamond explicitly says the hunter-gatherers of New Guinea (Papuans, not Maoris) are intellectually superior to Europeans not only because of their challenging environment, but for genetic reasons. Of course, to even admit the possibility of genetically-based differences among different populations is to commit Thoughtcrime, so one wonders what he was thinking when he wrote this.


  3. One deeply flawed point in the argument above: “Our status as culture-creating animals is what can distinguish us from our zoological fellows”. This is almost as obsolete as “race science”. Human culture is certainly peculiarly powerful, but the idea that cultural phenomena are restricted to humans – instead of a major an pervasive feature of animal societies is now totally outdated.. Understanding the differences between human and non-human cultures is certainly important and fascinating. Denying culture in non-humans is just old trash.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. the scientific question at stake is what explains the massive difference in cognitive ability, a difference that has massive social consequences. why should we lazily assume that the causes are entirely environmental?


    • There isn’t any “massive difference in cognitive ability”–there is a difference in mean IQ between two groups … a difference highly correlated with socioeconomic status that has decreased over time. And despite the mean, *most individual* blacks are smarter than dumb racists like you.


      • The difference has been around 1 SD for a long time. It obviously will correlate with socioeconomic status, but that does not mean socioeconomic status explain the difference as there would be a correlation if the cause was 100% genetic. Again let me ask – why should we lazily assume that the causes are entirely environmental?


      • Leaving aside that you are foolishly assuming that heritability measures the difference BETWEEN two different populations for a moment (it doesn’t, it measures variance WITHIN a population), let’s take your question seriously:

        When an agricultural geneticist wants to find out how much variance in corn growth is heritable they plant the corn in as identical conditions as possible so whatever variance is left cannot be due to environmental differences. Yet you want to try to find out heritability in IQ in a deeply racist society in which equalization of environment is impossible. So stop being lazy and work for a just and equitable society for everyone. At that point it might make sense to try to measure the heritability of IQ. THAT would be good science. Until then you are just defending a racist social order by trying to naturalize social oppression as somehow in genes. You are just repeating a defense that has been refuted over and over and over and over…..


  5. in summary:

    1) bad people made possibly bad arguments about a subject in the past therefore we should not study that subject regardless of the validity of any current or future research.
    2) we shouldn’t investigate the causes of group differences. we should just assume it is due to racism. you are a bad person if you think otherwise.


    • Your mistake is thinking that we haven’t investigated these questions. We have. For over a century. Exhaustively. Pretty much since World War I and the first massive administration of IQ tests. The results have been, scientifically speaking, bupkis for the race/IQ argument. So, will you be needing an other century or so of “lets keep investigating the question!” before you throw in the towel? Are there really no better questions on which we could be spending our time?

      Liked by 2 people

    • If you discount racism as an explanation for social inequality in socially constructed races you have a bad view. Let’s create a just and fair society for everyone and then the genetic “causes of group differences” would be clearly in sight. Until then, the whole idea that we could somehow isolate “genetic causes of group differences” is foolish.


      • But wouldn’t a just and fair society for everyone prevent any and all genetic causes of group differences from manifesting in the first place?


    • The causes of group differences are investigated all the time, and investigations into the genetics of group differences are, when done well, not generally condemned as racist. See the literature on the evolution of lactase persistence. Or on the genetic adaptations to deep sea diving ( https://www.cell.com/cell/pdf/S0092-8674(18)30386-6.pdf). Pace white supremacists’ bizarre misuse of lactase persistence, neither of these projects was / is considered racist, or even the slightest bit problematic. Similarly for work on high-altitude adaptations, etc.

      What do the studies about the genetic bases of group differences that aren’t racist have in common? Well, for one thing, they are focused on actually finding the genes involved, and elucidating the mechanistic pathways from the genes to the traits of interest. They take seriously the need to actually investigate the plausibility of the selective scenarios they posit, etc. In other words, they actually do the science, and do it well.

      Work that fails to live up the standards necessary to publish material on ecotypic adaptations in Drosophila, or Arabidopsis, doesn’t magically become OK when it is applied to humans. And when work that fails spectacularly to meet those minimal standards is also associated with deliberate projects to undermine demands for justice and support a racist status quo, it is reasonable to draw the conclusion that the work itself, and the people promoting it, are indeed likely racist.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. And of course Rosenberg did NOT find 5 clusters — or at least, he didn’t find 5 clusters anymore than he found 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7 clusters. The beautiful thing about STRUCTURE is that you tell it how many clusters you want (K=?) and it will give you that number of clusters back. There is no sense in which any of those sets of clusters are more “real” than any others.

    Further, what clusters you get out depends on what you put in. IF you sample more heavily from around Africa (which might make sense, given that Africa is where most of the genetic diversity in the world resides), and you tell it to make 5 clusters, you won’t get the same 5 as Rosenberg got, since it will split Africa into two clusters before then (see Tishkoff et al on this)…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Arthur Jensen and His Nazi Friends | Fardels Bear

  8. The objection that the concept of race is undefinable is also an objection that applies to the concept of species itself. Many so-called species of small birds or squirrels are little more than breeding populations that are marked by differences in plumage or fur color or size, the same criteria used for race division in humans (by analogy: humans don’t have plumage). Perhaps using the concept of clade from the vocabulary of evolution would be better than race or species.


  9. Without getting into the details of Rosenberg’s study, let us suppose, counter-factually, that Rosenberg had found a different number. Pretty much whatever number you suppose, Quillette could have declared that the study proved that race was real by choosing a different18th or 19th century race scientist.

    I agree with this point about cherrypicking of old race scientists, but it’s also worth noting that Rosenberg et al. didn’t “find” this number at all, and didn’t claim to. If you look at the paper, they say that “We applied a model-based clustering algorithm that, loosely speaking, identifies subgroups that have distinctive allele frequencies. This procedure, implemented in the computer program structure (14), places individuals into K clusters, where K is chosen in advance but can be varied across independent runs of the algorithm.” That line “where K is chosen in advance” means that the number of clusters isn’t something that emerges naturally from the data, in that run of the algorithm they told the program they wanted 5 groupings at the outset. Elsewhere in the paper they describe the results when they asked the program to separate people into different numbers of clusters, and there’s no suggestion that 5 was a more natural number than any other.

    Also, any species that differs by even the tiniest amount from 100% perfectly linear geographic variation would be separable into clusters in this way, but in practice when biologists talk about “clinal” variation they don’t mean that all traits have to vary in a completely linear way with geographical distance. And human traits do vary in a way that in other species would likely be seen as “clinal” rather than a case of clearly distinct sub-populations, see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4756148/ for details


  10. I must admit that “race realism” does get tiresome. The basic arguments never change. It doesn’t matter how lacking the evidence or how many times it’s criticized. Anyway, in case you’re interested, here is Bo Winegard’s response:


  11. The objections surrounding the STRUCTURE algorithm—essentially, that K is a parameter—are fundamentally misguided. Moreover, criticism of race realism (or racism, if you prefer) that hinges on variation in the number of proposed racial classifications is similarly misguided. I can elaborate if anyone is interested, but the reason should be obvious to anyone who has actually thought about the clustering procedure.


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