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Topic Home · Related:  
Book Review - Race
Race
by Vincent Sarich and Frank Miele
Westview Press, 2004
Review by Max Hocutt Ph.D.

This pastiche of a book summarizes and updates the reasons for believing that differences of race are not only real but also biologically significant, a proposition that would once have been thought too obvious to state but is now often treated as pernicious nonsense.

 The authors bring impressive credentials to their work. Sarich, a retired professor of anthropology, was one of the pioneers in using molecular biology to understand human origins.  Miele, an editor of Skeptic magazine, has made a career of interviewing distinguished scientists and writing lucid accounts of their work for the general public. (For an example, see Frank Miele, Intelligence, Race, and GeneticsConversations with Arthur R. Jensen (Westview, 2002), reviewed by me in Metapsychology in November, 2002.)

Unfortunately, the Sarich/Miele collaboration is not always felicitous.  Usually it is Sarich who speaks alone, at other times Miele.  Only occasionally do they speak in one voice.  So, the texture of the book is uneven.  Sarich's remarks tend to be at self-referential and technical; Miele's impersonal and concrete.  The result gives the impression of having been stuck together from disparate parts rather than written as a unified whole.  Despite these defects, the book is very readable and presents a powerful argument.

According to Sarich's highly personal story, his work at the University of California in Berkeley helped to settle the question whether present day races descended from one ancestral group or many.  Owing to analyses of the chemistry of proteins and to later discoveries involving DNA, we can now be certain that all living human beings had African ancestors.  About 50,000 years ago, a sub group of Africans split off from the rest and scattered to the corners of the earth.  (Apparently, no one knows why.) Racial differences developed as evolutionary adaptations to the different environments into which they moved. (Apparently, Neanderthal man, who may have been of different lineage, was killed by, or assimilated by, Cro-Magnon man.)

When Sarich began his application of chemistry to anthropology, the reality of racial differences was not in question.  The task of the anthropologist was to explain these differences, and the main issue was the time and place of their origin: How long had distinguishable races existed, and did they originate in the same or in different places?  Were they recent branches of the same human tree, or were they continuations of much older genetic lines?  Those were the questions of interest.

Those questions having been settled, concerns have changed.  Now, it is common in some quarters to doubt not only the importance of racial distinctions but even their reality.  According to the view that has become politically correct, the concept of race is a myth, which serves only to perpetuate the oppression of some groups by others. Sarich observes that this line of thought was fostered by the pupils of anthropologist Franz Boas, who transformed preoccupation with race into an obsession with culture.

Sometimes, Sarich notes, Boasian denial of the reality of race does not go very deep. Often, as in the case of Ashley Montague, it signifies merely the intention to replace the word race with some such term as population or ethnic group.  The idea seems to be that if you deprive people of the name, they will no longer be able to compare the reality, so will cease to believe that one race is superior to another; the evil of racism will be eliminated by the simple expedient of obliterating a word. The trouble, Sarich and Miele observe, is that it is not clear how people are to be prevented either from comparing "populations" or from believing that one "ethnic group" is superior to another.

More radical followers of Boas have recently attacked not just the word 'race' but also the concept for which it stands. Critics of racial classification have begun to argue that, since racial comparisons are wicked, the idea of race must itself be in some way defective; never mind its empirical credentials or its longstanding and widespread acceptance.  According to a currently popular line of thought, the idea of race is a "social construct" having no basis in reality.  In other words, race is a self-serving myth.   

 Sarich and Miele maintain that this view flies in the face of plain facts. As they see them, racial differences are not only real; they are also obvious.  Everybody notices them, because many of them, though not all, are manifest right on the surface. Sarich, who has done the experiment, invites you to sort a hundred randomly chosen people, or their pictures, into groups.  He predicts that the resulting assortment will be by race, and that everybody everywhere will recognize it as such. In response to claims that the concept of race was invented in modern times to justify European colonialism, Sarich displays some Ancient Egyptian drawings that show four human figures in comparable pose side by side, each from a recognizably different race.  In Sarich's opinion, what everybody sees cannot be unreal.

The usual rejoinder is that surface differences are skin deep, so reveal nothing about character or intelligence; underneath, we are all the same. To this line of thought, Sarich and Miele reply that researches in microbiology and medicine have recently revealed, and are continuing to reveal, differences that are neither superficial nor trivial—e.g., in susceptibility to certain diseases and resistance to their cures.  Furthermore, they say, surface differences cannot exist without underlying differences in genes, and it is unlikely that traits which presently distinguish a population have been unrelated to its survival.  Evolution does not work like that.

As Sarich and Miele emphasize, race is a matter of lineage; and, therefore, it is a matter of heredity.  You belong to the race of your forebears, and it is from them that you have inherited the genes that distinguish your race from others. These genes give you dark skin or light, kinky hair or straight, susceptibility to malaria or immunity to it; and so on.  Since Sarich brought the chemistry of proteins to bear on anthropology, other scientists have studied DNA markers on both the maternal (mitochondrial DNA) and paternal (Y chromosome) sides, revealing that racial differences in lineage and heredity are not imaginary but indubitably and inescapably real. 

The usual reply is that even where genetic differences are provably real, they are so few as to be inconsequential. To this reply Sarich and Miele make two rejoinders.  First, using a metric of his own invention, Sarich maintains that the morphological differences between different races of human beings are greater than those between different species of monkeys.  Second, Miele (who is a dog fancier) notes that although breeds of dogs differ markedly, the genetic differences between them are so small that they have only recently been identified.  Taken together, the two points show that what matters most is not the number of genetic differences but their functionality.  Small differences can be important.

Like dogs, human beings not only differ in conformation or morphology but also in temperament and ability--which brings Sarich and Miele to the touchy topic of IQ.  If cognitive capacity is of the human essence, as Aristotle said, then to suggest that people have different degrees of it seems to imply that they possess different degrees of humanity, a proposition some people find too wicked to countenance.  Sarich and Miele disagree.  Breeds of dogs vary in every dimension too. They are still all dogs.  Variation is the iron law of biology.  The human species could not be an exception to this law.

The argument is a strong one. Is it sound?  Will it withstand close scrutiny? This query is too contentious and complicated to take up in a short review. (I have written about it elsewhere.  See "Is the Concept of Race Illegitimate?" The Independent Review, 7, 1 (September 2002), 115-128.)  Let me say only that I learned some things from reading Race: The Reality of Human Differences.  You might too.

           

© 2004 Max Hocutt

  

Max Hocutt Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, The University of Alabama; author of Grounded Ethics: The Empirical Bases of Normative Judgment; formerly editor of Behavior and Philosophy.

 

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