I have really had it with anti-intellectualism masquerading as biological science. What really set me off is a blog post by the distinguished evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/are-there-human-races/).
Unlike the great fruitfly geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who was a member of various anthropological associations and had personal and professional relationships with anthropologists who worked on human diversity (notably Sherry Washburn, Ashley Montagu, and Margaret Mead) – and even let his daughter marry one, archaeologist Michael Coe – Coyne writes in abject ignorance of anthropology. Freed from the constrains of actual knowledge, then, Coyne is able to present his own commonsensical views as if they were based on science.
He quotes historian of biology Jan Sapp, reviewing two new books on the subject which both come to the same conclusion – that human races are biocultural constructs, not natural facts – and dismisses the conclusion of the books and the reviewer: “Well, if that’s the consensus, I am an outlier.”
The irony is that Coyne is not self-aware enough to appreciate that that is precisely parallel to the position of the creationists. His idea of race is the existence of between-group variation in the human species, and the discovery that groups of people are different from one another. Anthropologists have been studying the nature of that difference for around a century and a half, but Coyne isn’t interested in what they’ve learned. Since there exist “morphologically different groups of people who live in different areas” then there are, ipso facto, human races, regardless of what anthropologists think they have learned about the subject.
Of course the discovery that people in different places are different is a trivial one. At issue is the pattern of those differences and its relation to the classification of the human species. To equate the existence of between-group variation to the existence of human races is to miss the point of race entirely. Race is not difference; race is meaningful difference. It’s the “meaningful” that takes the question of human races out of the geneticist’s domain and places it into the anthropologist’s domain (which is where it has always been – although occasionally opposed by reactionary geneticists like Charles Davenport and Ruggles Gates, whom Coyne would do well to read). At issue is the (cultural) decision about how much difference and what kinds of difference “count” in deciding that this kind of a person is categorically different from that kind of a person. The merest familiarity with the modern literature on race would have made that clear to Coyne. Coyne echoes right-wing ignoramuses with the sentiment that “the subject of human races, or even the idea that they exist, has become taboo.” Jon Entine made the same claim in his stupid 2000 book on the imaginary genetic superiority of black athletes; and the segregationists made the same argument in the early 1960s.
But of course, race is only taboo in the same sense that creationism has become taboo, as being a false theory about the world, from which scholars have moved on. In fact, Coyne’s anti-intellectualism here is the equivalent of the creationist’s claim that “We obviously did not evolve from apes, since apes still exist”. It reveals such an abject ignorance of the topic that all you can do is suggest a return to kindergarten.
Coyne’s post, as it turns out, was inspired by a review (in American Scientist by Jan Sapp) of two books on race. He explains, “I haven’t talked much about Sapp’s review, as I find it tendentious; nor have I read the books he’s reviewing.” The books he’s reviewing are:
Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture, edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan.
I haven’t read that one, but I can vouch that many of the contributors – including Troy Duster, Duana Fullwiley, Jonathan Kahn, Joe Graves, and Pilar Ossorio - have written insightfully and at considerable length on the subject, and know a heck of a lot more about it than Jerry Coyne does.
The other book is called Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth and is actually by a biological anthropologist and an evolutionary geneticist – Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle. If Coyne ever gets around to handling a copy of the book that inspired the review that inspired his ignorant blog post, he’ll discover that the jacket blurb says,
a prominent anthropologist and a prominent evolutionary geneticist have teamed up to give us a powerful scientific critique of the commonsensical idea of race. Distinguished scholars and skilled communicators, Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle show clearly how “race” simply cannot be used as a synonym for “human biological diversity”. In the age of genomics, this partnership of intellectual specialties is particularly valuable, and the result is a splendid testament to the merits of trans-disciplinary collaborations.
The good news is that there are evolutionary geneticists like Rob DeSalle out there. But the scholarly boat seems to have sailed away without Jerry Coyne on board. Ironically, the last time I gave a talk at the University of Chicago, about three years ago, it was on this very subject. My title was, “Some More Things I’m Pissed Off About”. Coyne wasn’t in attendance.
And yes, I wrote that blurb.