Tuesday 11 October 2011

A Rose by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet: Part Three of The Evolutionary Biology of Race

As you can see, examining the racial worldview is not a simple issue. Kind of like evolution. One of the reasons most people can say that they don't believe in evolution is that it's hard. A bit like 'presidenting' was for Bush 2.0! 
1820 drawing of a Book of Gates fresco of the 
tomb of Seti I: Berber, Nubian, Asiatic, Egyptians
     I promise. Only one or two installments after this! In this part, I'll take you on a brief trot through the history of racial classifications. This ought to illustrate the futility of trying to fit the world's people into a 'reified' category like 'race.' So, to be brief...
Linnaeus: Carl von Linné
     The ancient Egyptians used colour to define four human groups. The Greeks had their classification. In the modern era, dead 'white' male European Linnaeus produced a comprehensive taxonomy of life, and today we still employ the binomial system of classification that gives us our nameHomo sapiens. Linnaeus named four species of human: Homo europaeus, H. asiaticus, H. afer (for Africans), and H. americanus, for the original 'Americans.' He's also the one who named us Mammals. (There's a very interesting bit of gender history behind his choice to name us with reference to lactating females. Think about it. He could have used Testicula instead of Mammalia, or the less heavily sex-biased Hirsutia!). A little later, a German anatomist, Blumenbach, saw deficiencies in Linnaeus’s categories, and proposed 5: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Malay, Ethiopian, American. Science was indeed progressing! 
Johann Blumenbach
     In 1926 one of the early physical anthropologists, Hooton,  proposed a set of divisions based on three so-called primary races: white, negroid, and mongoloid. Hooton’s primary sub-races in the ‘white’ category included people he termed Mediterranean, the Ainu of northern Japan, Keltic [his spelling, not mine], Nordic, Alpine and east Baltic peoples [no one's really certain what happened to the west Baltic peoples]. Under ‘negroid’, Hooton included the ‘African Negro’, the ‘Nilotic Negro’, and the ‘Negrito.’ And just to demonstrate that he was sensitive to the inherent arbitrariness of even his super-sophisticated 
classification, Hooton added secondary subraces to the mix. Under ‘Mongoloid’ were the ‘Classic’ and the ‘Arctic Mongoloid’, followed by the secondary subraces of the ‘Malay-Mongoloid’ and the ‘Indonesians’. I wonder, would Hooton have placed the original Australians in the ‘Nilotic’ or the ‘African Negro’ category? I think he might have had some problems with that classification.
Anthropologist Earnest Hooton. It's not so much
that he was aware of his system's arbitrary nature,
it was that his rational mind was trying to think of 
square pegs in terms of round holes. [In the vernacular,
this is known as an epic fail.]

     And this underscores the fundamental problem with such classifications. As soon as you get beyond gross oversimplifications, you run into the problem of who to leave in and who to leave out of increasingly specific subsets of humans.
     The problem of racism, and the realization that racism was based in just the kinds of classifications that physical anthropologists had been buying into, led to a sea change of sorts in the discipline. The racial worldview, if you like, compelled these scientists to categorize, but they were too aware of the political winds to call them simply races. Instead, they looked for a classification that would both explain the clusters of characteristics and that allowed them to justify the classifications in the first place.
Anthropologist Stanley Garn
     Enter the ‘geographical race’, which was defined as a collection of race populations, separated from other such collections by major geographical barriers. So said Stanley Garn, in the 1960s. Now we had the ‘Amerindian’, the ‘Polynesian’, the ‘Melanesian’, the ‘Melanesian-Papuan’, the ‘Australian’, the ‘Asiatic’, the ‘Indian’, the ‘European’, and the ‘African’. Within these so-called geographical races were hundreds of so-called local races: ‘northwestern European’, ‘northeastern European’, ‘Alpine’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘East African’, ‘Bantu’, ‘Tibetan’, ‘North Chinese’, ‘Extreme Mongoloid’, ‘Hindu’. Garn even went so far as to admit the existence of something he called microraces: this enabled him ultimately to narrow the definition of a race to a neighborhood in a city. And one wonders if, in his darkest hours, Garn didn’t imagine that families, or even individuals couldn’t be construed as stand-alone races! Garn’s classification stands as a monument to the racial worldview in collision with reality.
Von Luschan's Chromatic Scale
     But let’s look more closely at one of these racial categories, to get a better idea of the sorts of issues that confound racial classification and that ultimately destroys the idea that races are real biological entities. Look, for example, at Von Luschan's scale, shown here. He posited 36 discrete colours for the world's people. Unfortunately, no two scalers could agree on the colour of the skin they were scaling. Try it yourself on these unsuspecting naked backed people. Seriously, there is continuous variability in skin colour, and anyone who says they can pick out mutually exclusive subsets is nuttier than I am for tackling this enormous issue in a few blog posts. But I digress. Even the cosmetics companies can do better at capturing the diversity of skin colour!
     Take the category Black, for example, or the more scientific sounding ‘negroid’ that used to be found in textbooks. When you’re looking for a way to categorize anything, you’re usually looking for a feature or a suite of mutually exclusive features that could be used to uniquely characterize that group—to set it apart from others. That, at least, would seem to sum up what racial categories were about.Well, the term ‘black’ falls down immediately. The very dark-skinned people of west Africa’s Ituri Forest, east Africa’s Kikuyu people, and the Arunta of Australia share nothing else in common but their skin tone! Everything else about them is different. They all have radically different body plans. Australian dark-skinned people and African dark-skinned people have different hair, different hair color, and different facial features. All they really had in common is living quarters that get a lot of intense sunshine, which as you know creates problems for fair-skinned people, and which naturally selects against genomes containing genes that code for fair skin.
Artificially delineated global distribution of skin colour 
     It's easy to see that a trait such as skin colour has an evolutionary basis. Dark skin maps on very nicely to latitude and annual hours and intensity of sunlight, with the homeland of the fairest skinned of all people in a high latitude place where it’s almost always cloudy. And light-skinned Australians know how that plays in a country where, annually, there are many more hours of sunlight than those experienced in England or Scandinavia.
     Basing a classification on skin colour alone ignores the different languages that the two African groups speak, and the radical difference between the African languages and those of Australia, to say nothing of the huge differences in cultures across the two continents. But most racists would simply call each and every one of them Blacks, and would value their customs and beliefs differently to those of fairer-skinned peoples.
     The same criticisms could be made of the other generic colour classifications commonly espoused: white, red, yellow.
     Take white, or the more scientific-sounding Caucasian. People in the Caucasus, many of them, at any rate, have quite brown skin. In fact one needs to do a lot of special pleading to fit a very fair-skinned Norwegian into the Caucasian mold. For me the inability for such classifications to accurately reflect reality is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Speaking of camels, we're over the hump. Not much further to go and you'll be all trained up!

1 comment:

  1. When will the mainstream folks realize skin color is a bit minor, and it's more about skull, structure, admixture

    calling Caucasian white, Mongolian Yellow, Negro black, and these naive false descriptions always lead the topic into void issue


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