Professor of Biological Anthropology Jonathan Marks asks, ‘Should we focus on social equality instead of gene pools?'
Nobody wants to stop the study of human diversity. But we want to stop scientists with a racist agenda from claiming authority and taking this field of science back 150 years. That is not progress; that is not science; it is anti-intellectualism.
Progress Not Regress
The fact is that nobody is against the search for, say, intelligence genes. At issue is: what do you think they will explain? Anthropologists have long since abandoned discussions of innate racial aptitudes as quaintly antiquated mindsets and accept that aptitudes cannot be evaluated independently of the lives, experiences, and expectations of the people concerned. While individual people may have (or lack) certain abilities as a result of the chance distribution and expression of genetic factors, there is no valid scientific reason to think that human groups differ at all significantly in their intrinsic abilities.
We do know a lot about the relationship between brain size and intelligence for example but we do know that except in rare and pathological cases, they don’t map particularly well. Currently the best predictor of brain size is body size (big people tend to have big heads). If this is a major determinant of intelligence, then the smartest people on earth would be professional wrestlers!
Anthropologists have been working on this for over a century and have written a great deal about it but the political stakes are high: given the fact of inequality.
A Human Diversity Checklist
We can summarize modern knowledge of human diversity in ten points.
1. Human groups distinguish themselves principally culturally.
Not only do we learn the ways to group people meaningfully, but we learn our individual expressions of those criteria as well. We speak certain ways, dress certain ways, dine certain ways, and groom ourselves in certain ways, which serve to differentiate our own group from other groups, and to situate ourselves within a social universe.
2. Human biological variation is continuous, not discrete.
Humans are a political and economic species, and wars, invasions, migrations, and trade have produced long-term connections among local gene pools. Populations have adapted to some extent genetically to their environments, but environments are local.
3. Clustering populations is arbitrary.
While there are gross bio-geographical patterns in the human species, these are commonly quite difficult to separate. Human groups are hierarchically organized and religions, languages, economic strata, and political identities do not map well onto human biological differences. While modern genetic tests aggregate clients according to their mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosome, the test is often less revealing than simply looking in the mirror.
4. Populations are biologically real, not races.
In 1957, the Oxford physical anthropologist Joseph Weiner explained that the human species was now understood “as constituting a widespread network of more-or-less interrelated, ecologically adapted and functional entities.” To the extent that the human species comes in geographically delimited units, those units are local and biocultural, not continental and ordained by nature.
5. Populations also have a constructed component.
Human populations interbreed with their neighbours, adopting and absorbing outsiders. Old identities are submerged and new identities emerge. Historical events and demographic processes create identities, and the genetic relationships between earlier and later peoples are often unclear, but are also often mythologized.
6. There is much more variation within groups (polymorphism) than between groups (polytypy).
Gene pools are not discrete at all; they overlap enormously. The non-overlapping portions of human gene pools constitute a small proportion of the detectable genetic variation in our species.
7. People are similar to those nearby and different from those far away.
The principal determinant of physical and genetic proximity is geographic proximity. Of course this only holds for indigenous rural populations, and its relevance – like much of the discussion of natural patterns of human population diversity – is unclear for the humans who live in large urban centres.
8. Racial classification is historical and political, and does not reflect natural biological patterns.
These classifications are meaningful to the extent that they summarize the diverse communities of interest to the government. These may be national origins, sexual orientations, religious affiliations, or simply global geographic origins – but they do not represent fundamental natural divisions of the human species.
9. Humans have little genetic variation.
However genetically different two people from different parts of the world may seem, two chimpanzees from the same part of Africa are found to be considerably more different. For evolutionary reasons that are still unclear, humans have far less biological diversity than our closest relatives, the apes.
10. Racial issues are social-political-economic, not biological.
What we regard as racial issues in the modern world are rarely related to biological differences. Ancestry does help to predict certain genetic risk factors, but synonymising ancestry with race would obscure rather than clarify the risks. Far more significant to overall health risks are other factors, such as neighborhood, occupation, age, sex, recreational habits.
Jonathan Marks is a Biological Anthropologist who teaches at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, USA. He is author of Why I Am Not a Scientist: Anthropology and Modern Knowledge and What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee.
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