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Sunday, May 11, 2008

"The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums." - G. K. Chesterton

***

Ernst Mayr on Race: The Biology of Race and the Concept of Equality

"There are words in our language that seem to lead inevitably to controversy. This is surely true for the words "equality" and "race."... There is a widespread feeling that the word "race" indicates something undesirable and that it should be left out of all discussions. This leads to such statements as "there are no human races."

Those who subscribe to this opinion are obviously ignorant of modern biology. Races are not something specifically human; races occur in a large percentage of species of animals. You can read in every textbook on evolution that geographic races of animals, when isolated from other races of their species, may in due time become new species. The terms "subspecies" and "geographic race" are used interchangeably in this taxonomic literature.

This at once raises a question: are there races in the human species? After all, the characteristics of most animal races are strictly genetic, while human races have been marked by nongenetic, cultural attributes that have very much affected their overt characteristics. Performance in human activities is influenced not only by the genotype but also by culturally acquired attitudes. What would be ideal, therefore, would be to partition the phenotype of every human individual into genetic and cultural components.

Alas, so far we have not yet found any reliable technique to do this. What we can do is acknowledge that any recorded differences between human races are probably composed of cultural as well as genetic elements. Indeed, the cause of many important group differences may turn out to be entirely cultural, without any genetic component at all. Still, if I introduce you to an Eskimo and a Kalahari Bushman I won't have much trouble convincing you that they belong to different races...

In the eighteenth century, when America's Constitution was written, all our concepts were dominated by the thinking of the physical sciences. Classes of entities were conceived in terms of Platonic essentialism. Each class (eidos) corresponded to a definite type that was constant and invariant. Variation never entered into discussions because it was considered to be "accidental" and hence irrelevant. A different race was considered a different type. A white European was a different type from a black African. This went so far that certain authors considered the human races to be different species.

It was the great, and far too little appreciated, achievement of Charles Darwin to have replaced this typological approach by what we now call population thinking. In this new thinking, the biological uniqueness of every individual is recognized, and the inhabitants of a certain geographic region are considered a biopopulation. In such a biopopulation, no two individuals are the same, and this is true even for the six billion humans now on Earth. And, most important, each biopopulation is highly variable, and its individuals greatly differ from each other, thanks to the unique genetic combinations that result from this variability...

At the same time, nothing could be more meaningless than to evaluate races in terms of their putative "superiority." Superiority where, when, and under what circumstances? During the period of the development of the human races, each one became adapted to the condition of its geographic location. Put a Bushman and an Eskimo in the Kalahari Desert and the Bushman is very much superior; put a Bushman and an Eskimo on the Greenland ice and the Eskimo is by far superior. The Australian Aborigines were very successful in colonizing Australia around sixty thousand years ago and developed local races with their own culture. Yet they could not defend themselves against European invaders...

When dealing with human races we must think of them as the inhabitants of the geographic region in which they had originated. Presumably each human race consists of individuals who, on average and in certain ways, are demonstrably superior to the average individual of another race. Eskimos, for instance, are superior in their adaptedness to cold. In the last four or five Olympics there were always six to eight contenders of African descent among the ten finalists in the sprinting races, surely not an accidental percentage...

When comparing one race with another, we do find genes that are on the whole specific for certain populations. Many individuals of Native American descent have the Diego blood group factors, and people of Jewish descent have a propensity for Tay-Sachs disease. Some of these characteristics are virtually diagnostic, but most are merely quantitative, like the description of the human races in older anthropology textbooks describing skin color, hair, eye color, body size, etc. An ensemble of such characteristics usually permits classifying an individual in the relevant race. All these characteristics are nevertheless highly variable...

In a recent aptitude test administered in California, students of Asian descent did conspicuously better than students of African descent. Researchers evaluating these results subsequently discovered that in the year preceding the test, the Asian-American students had spent a daily average of three hours on homework, while the African-American students had done virtually no homework at all...

So what, if anything, does biology, and specifically the biological understanding of race, have to teach us about the concept of equality?

In the first place, the biological facts may help to remind us just how new the political concept of equality really is. When we look at social species of animals, we discover that there is always a rank order. There may be an alpha-male or an alpha-female, and all other individuals of the group fall somewhere below them in the rank order.

A similar rank-ordering has long marked many human societies as well...

As a historian of science, I am inclined to believe that the scientific revolution of the eighteenth century helped to promote new ways of thinking about equality. From the perspective of Newtonian essentialism, all samples of a chemical element are identical and, as modern physics assumes, so are nuclear particles. Equality of this sort is a universal phenomenon. Perhaps it was only a small step from Newtonian essentialism to the moral proposition that all human beings are essentially equal, and therefore should have equal rights...

No two human individuals are genetically the same. Paradoxically, it is precisely because the human population is genetically and culturally so diverse that we need a principle of civil equality. Anybody should be able to enjoy the benefits of our liberal society in spite of differences of religion, race, or socioeconomic status...

When Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that " all men are created equal," he failed to distinguish between the civil equality of individual human beings and their biological uniqueness. Even though all of us are in principle equal before the law and ought to enjoy an equality of opportunity, we may be very different in our preferences and aptitudes. And if this is ignored, it may well lead to discord."
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