Sunday, August 17, 2008

Race and Biology 2

Last year around this time Nobel Prize laureate, James Watson, shocked the scientific community with his ludicrous claim that race is a scientific category.

Watson, you may remember, won the Nobel Prize for his research that led (in part) to the 'discovery' of DNA.

So, it is October again. Now comes a report that Akhil Bakshi, a fellow of the prestigious Royal Geographic Society and celebrity photographer, is pushing the preposterous claim "that blacks, whites and Asians have different ape ancestors."

Bakshi, who is not an anthropologist, revives the old racial categories of Negroid, Caucasian and Mongoloid to argue that Blacks, whites, and Asians evolved as distinct races from "separate species" on "different continents".

Bakshi, who is from India, is merely repeating a discredited theory called multiregionalism.

A major focus of "multiregionalism" is to counter the competing "recent single-origin hypothesis" (RSOH) that argues all humans share a common ancestry that evolved in Africa before migrating elsewhere.

RSOH is the dominant theory and it supports the view that race is entirely a socio-historic and political construction.

Watson's work on DNA did not convince him of his own 'finding' that humans share a very narrow genetic pool and that variance in genetics does not account for race.

In fact, humans not only share common genes with each other, we also share the same genes with chimpanzees and fruit flies.

So why is it that the discredited racist nonsense of Watson and Bakshi just won't go away?

Part of the problem lies with the manner that race directs human activity in the last six hundred years. It is not as if the centrality of race has disappeared. It is not.

Race is seated inside of the 'modern' organization of the state and its political 'software', nationalism.

In a very real sense, though race is mostly accepted as not being real in terms of biology, it is nontheless lived as if it is biological.

In the place of biological essentialisms race has found very similar socio-economic (inclusive of cultural) and political essentialisms.

The outcome has been that race is treated as cultural but in a manner that replicates its biological assumptions. There is a whole school of cultural thought that attribute racialized motivation to behaviours of racial groups for example.

The cultural explanation of difference, demonstrated in multiculturalism, is guilty of arranging culture under racial assumptions. Multiculturalism advocates also prefer to emphasize ethnicity over race but hardly do so in a manner that removes assumptions of racialized essentialism.

In the US, in particular, we find an assortment of liberals and others who posture progress beyond race on essentialized multiculturalism and ethnicity.

The major problem with any of these approaches is that it ignores how race is structured in organizations (institutionalized). It also ignores how race and racism is reproduced in culture, psychology, religion, education, politics, law, etc.

This allows dominant whiteness to consider tolerance as a liberal virtue without really allowing a contestation of whiteness and its race rules and values.

Race and racism as a system of power remains intact.

I expect, therefore, that the likes of Bakshi and Watson will remain prominent because race and racism is the unfinished business of domination. In fact, how far have we moved from Morton's craniometry, Gall's phrenology, and Lavater's Physiognomy.

IQ tests and so called standardized tests are more recent inventions that in part posture to tell us racial 'truths' (gender and class too). Remember Herrnstein and Murray used their "Bell Curve" to explain why Blacks and Hispanics are less intelligent than whites (one standard deviation dumber to be exact across class and gender).

In South Africa, the education authorities are now adapting IQ and standardized tests to measure and set what they persistently call benchmarks. Since South Africa is a racialized state and society we can expect that data will stratify racial differences much the same (if even for different reasons) as in the US.

So I expect that we will be debating race and biology for as long as race essentialisms, in all its complex variations, organizes human behaviour/interests.


Image Credits Skulls and Bakshi


Geoffrey Goines said...

Serious question.
What in Watson's statements did you find to be ludicrous?

Professor Zero said...

"The outcome has been that race is treated as cultural but in a manner that replicates its biological assumptions."

Culturalizing it, say my Brazilian interlocutors, makes it OK even when the material results are the same [as you can see, I am STILL stewing about that conversation].

Dade said...

Hi, Ridwan.

Bakshi's "theory" is easily refuted, is it not? If the various races were, in fact, distinct species, they would not be able to breed and produce viable offspring. For example, a horse and donkey can breed, but they produce a mule which is incapable of breeding.

Well, obviously the same is not true for "Causcasians," "Mongoloids," and "Negroids." In fact, there is an entire line of Thomas Jefferson's descendants that are living proof that interracial breeding produce viable offspring.

Bakshi's a racist hack, it would seem.

Ridwan said...

Geoffrey I have linked my thinking on Watson's remarks.

Here are the two posts:

The overall point is that there is no science in race, race cannot be proven in biology or in any other science.

Watson started the furore by saying that he was "inherently gloomy" that Africans (read Blacks) could achieve what whites have achieved because they were less intelligent and "tests" say so."

He later retracted this racist nonsense by saying he was misunderstood.

Race is simply a socio-historic and racial construction, there is no predetermined scientific manner of accounting for race or racial behaviour.


Ridwan said...

Hi PZ. I see you are still
"steaming" and for good reason.

"Culturalizing" race ... mmmmm.

Brazil is definitely fascinating in terms of how race is described.

Here in South Africa there is no conversation of "culturalizing" race that I am aware of.

But how can anyone think that the cultural version of oppression is better than the racial?

Geez hey.

Thanks PZ, trust you are well.


Ridwan said...

Hey there Dade. You are absolutely right that there are no meaningful barriers to
'interbreeding' among humans.

He is a hack and it is sad that the Indian government supports his nonsense with funding.

He is a kind of celebrity who has no scientific training. He cannot account for his theory.

What bugs the hell out of me are the assumptions that one can tell these differences by infering this and that human quality.

So if the apes come from different continents then there must be a correlation between origin and development.

So, Africans are inferior apes because the continent is underdeveloped, etc.

I am not saying that Bakshi says this, but there are others who have versions of this thinking (including Watson).

Peace brother,