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 things. A 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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