If the webinar were a debate and you were the judge, who would win? Why?
I’m far too biased in favor of the social construct theory to really be all that good of a judge, because I believe that the social implications of biological race are monstrous and even if they were on the whole benign, as most genetic differences are wont to be, I can’t handle the idea of letting the Nazis be right about anything, nor can I really appreciate anything that could easily be misinterpreted by the public as supporting any race being “better” or “worse” than any other one.
But at the same time, the notion that Wade’s conclusions are arbitrary is a sound one. You can bundle up data in just about any way you can imagine, depending on the inputs and parameters given. I’m reminded of one of my favorite sites, Spurious Correlations, which charts data to find statistical correlations that are obviously nonsensical. What does the age of Miss America have to do with the number of murders by steam, or other hot vapors? Absolutely nothing, but the charts show a lovely correlation. You could just as easily do a study on the genetic differences between people who like Star Trek and people who like Star Wars. Are they different races? Why not? Show me the evidence to prove me wrong.
I also would like to see some archaeological evidence that these continental races didn’t come in different waves or that all people on that continent shared a distinct common ancestry. For instance, Europe has had people from all sorts of continents migrate into it, and migrate out of it, and sometimes they settled and married in with their neighbors, and sometimes they just kept to themselves and bred within their own group. This is happening today. It’s happened many times in the past. When does a group of people become “European”, and not “African” or “Asian”?
I also tend to dislike any easy conclusions, as the ideas that seem the most intuitive are the ones that are most easy to use to shut up any further investigation.
Once he gets to the idea that differences in genetics explain different social structures and behaviors between races, that’s when I get completely lost. Given that all continents contain a huge number of environments and a huge number of cultures, I have to wonder what makes say, the Andes different from the Alps, and what makes the Navajo so similar to the Seminole. Given the human ability to pass on information in non-genetic ways, like say, talking and teaching, I don’t understand why this would be such an obvious explanation for different human societies.
I’m also inclined to agree with zoologists and other non-human biologists when it comes to authority on just how much genetic difference is important to consider as species or subspecies, since if anyone should know just how much variation there is in living organisms themselves, it’d be the people who study species that are very obviously genetically different.
What is the foundation of Wade’s argument?
One of them is a study that shows genetic variation between populations on different continents. These variations are legacies of the migration of human populations across the world, and as they are geographically distinct groups, mostly isolated within their own realm.
He used a program called Structure which sorts out data based on similarity into groups. At five or so groups, or maybe more or less, they sort out by continent. Different allies have different frequencies within different populations, and once you get into smaller groups, you start getting into smaller sub-populations, which he calls either subspecies or ethnicities, depending on which word makes this easier to swallow.
He goes further in this to claim that these differences in alleles produce social adaptations to human conditions, that the Jewish people have adapted to capitalism the way that the Eskimo have adapted to an Arctic environment. He doesn’t seem to provide any non-anecdotal evidence for this claim, and it’s easily disproven by the rate of adaptation to extremely rapid social change in the past 100 years. If we’re talking what my ancestors would’ve been doing in the past 50,000 years, it would likely be a lot of farming and not a lot of video games, and yet here I am, completely unsuited to farm life and winning so much in Overwatch. According to my grandfather, my Polish ancestors were “mountain people”, and here I am, with crippling acrophobia, getting easily winded by climbing.
Surrounding this is the claim that anthropologists have a vested interest in disproving the idea of biological race because they wish to fight the adverse effects of racism and colonialism. This is true, that many anthropologists set out on their research for this exact reason. Franz Boas was a Jewish man from Germany in the lead up to World War II, enough said. I’ve been an anthropology student for years, and I know that if I or even any of my professors started talking about race as something other than a social construct, we’d all get shouted out of the room for being racists.
But at the same time, just because something’s controversial, doesn’t mean it deserves any better treatment than any other unpopular idea. You could argue that the human race is made of goat sperm and you’d get laughed out of the academy. But that doesn’t mean that they’re afraid to see the implications of your ideas, it means that you’re just plain wrong, and those studies that show that we share say, 95% of our genes with goats can be explained by things other than humans being made of goat sperm.
Consider the final three articles, in which two anthropologists and Wade argue Wade’s fundamental claim, which is that the newest genetic research shows that racial differences reflect the fundamental biological reality of race. Which positions do you find most convincing? Why? Least convincing? Why?
Raff argues against Wade because his data is arbitrarily grouped. The reason that he stops as 5is because if you input k=6, you’ll end up with the groups united by continent, and also the Kalash of Pakistan. Red, yellow, black, white and Kalash. By his own admission, Wade keeps it to 6 because it’s “simple”. It would be more logical, Raff argues, to think of race as being a gradient. Grouping people by blood type makes just as much sense, but will produce results different than grouping people by skin color. This also makes sense given the fact that multiracial people are, say, not sterile.
Fuentes, the other participant in the webinar writes a post-mortum in the Huffington Post. He reiterates his position that once you start grouping together races, the question begins of where exactly you stop, and why you should stop where you do. He cites that the makers of the program Structure agree that it isn’t well suited to working with gene flow that’s isolated by distance, the way that genetic variation in geographic populations is. He also argues that there are a huge number of non-genetic factors that go into human development, and that to just ignore all of these other things is to do a great disservice to the true diversity and the true unity of the human race.
Once Wade starts defending himself, he does very little to explain himself to me. I’m not super convinced that Wade’s credentials as a science journalist put him above an anthropologist who studies human genetics. They don’t have any background in but then again, neither does he. He brings up the idea that his detractors careers would be over if he was right far too many times for my liking. Egos can get in the way of scientific progress, but at the same time, there’s plenty of young people who go into science to prove everyone wrong, and there’s plenty to gain in shaking up the status quo. And besides, argument by reputation and authority is not even worth getting into, and the fact that he brings it up at all makes me wonder why he doesn’t just go straight for the evidence, instead of spending most of his time belittling his opponents.
What are the greatest weaknesses of the argument you find most convincing, or with which you agree?
The fact that I am naturally drawn to it for social reasons, not for scientific reasons. This kind of bias is easy to have, and it’s not necessarily a good thing. There are people who refuse to believe in evolution because they believe that it opens the door to social Darwinism, but the fact is that social Darwinism can be a load of garbage without disproving natural selection or evolutionary theory. It is entirely possible for race to be a useful and well proven scientific concept without it upholding ideas of racial superiority or inferiority. It helps it, sure, but the natural truth is not always something that fits nicely within our human social world.
We construct plenty of horrible things around say, disability, but that doesn’t change the fact that yes, someone in a wheelchair can’t walk, and that’s something we need to address. If anything, knowing the biological components of disability can help provide accommodations and treatments for disabled persons, making it easier to find ways to not discriminate against them.
What are the greatest strengths of the argument you find least convincing, or with which you disagree?
The idea that opposition to race on an ideological field alone is worthy enough to be virtuous in its own right, and that our personal assumptions should not get in the way of studying the physical world and its physical manifestations. In this, I agree that studying the biological fingerprints of human migration should not be taboo, just because it gets uncomfortably close to talking about race. These differences by populations are absolutely worth studying, and no matter what conclusion we come to in the end, racism is still bad for society and bad for humanity.
This field is only just beginning. We shouldn’t make assumptions quite yet, and we shouldn’t assume that things are a certain way because we’ve always assumed they were as such.