Fall term is almost upon us. I will be teaching a course on social consequences of biological diversity, and much of it is far from politically correct. I have been thinking that I should introduce some material from the “race is a social construct” point of view, but nothing I could find was serious in the sense of saying something about data. Searching, I contacted Jason Antrosio, who writes a blog called Living Anthropologically. He often writes about topics like this, or, rather, they seem to be related insofar as I can make sense of them. He often has interesting things to say and he mentions, in a post about the Aurora shootings, that he grew up in a gun culture in Montana. I figure he must be all right.
He sent me a detailed reply. Apparently others had asked for the same advice, and he posted his recommendations here. I read most of what he suggested, and I still have no idea what the issues are or what the point of the papers is.
Here is a letter I wrote him, in the spirit of continuing our conversation. I am posting it here, lightly edited, to try for some feedback from our readers.
I have read over many of the papers you recommended to me. I am
writing you this note to continue the conversation. I would post it
as a comment on your blog, but I tend to be terse and blunt. As a
blog comment it would, I fear, come across as rude and hostile, which
is certainly not my intention. You are of course welcome to
use it in any way you might think appropriate.
My view remains that there is no substance to the papers you
recommend, or, more precisely, that the substance is fogged by
gratuitous political platitudes. There are two discrete themes I
detect running through all of them. The first is that we must not use
the word race. The second is that biology and genetics are
distasteful and that they have no place in understanding human
The denunciation of the word race is magical thinking, as if it makes
any difference to anyone or anything if I lecture about “ancestry” rather than
about “race”. They are just words. Reminds me of the time when
calling women “Ms” was going to end sexism.
You quote John Relethford’s remark that race is “culturally
constructed label that crudely and imprecisely describes real
variation”. Of course it is, so are latitude and stature and lots of
other things we might notice. What I find puzzling is that Relethford
is absolutely first rate: why is he bothering to push this kind of
thing? The same is true of Hunley and the New Mexico bunch.
The aversion to genetics and biology is another mystery. The Gravlee
article you recommended is beautifully written, clear and articulate.
But it is exhortation to consider nothing but social/psychological
explanations of health disparities. If we did not have a pretty clear
understanding of the history and biology of sickle cell anemia those
folks would tell us that it a disease caused by poverty.
I am interested in European Jewish history and biology. A few years
ago I checked out the literature in sociology about Jewish success and
came across a solid review article by an established scholar
(Jewish Educational And Economic Success In The United States:A Search
For Explanations, Paul Burstein, Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 50,
Issue 2, pp. 209–228, 2007).
There are three major reputable social-scientific explanations of
why Jews do so well. (I emphasize “reputable” and
“social-scientific” to exclude genetic explanations and those
proposed by anti-Semites.)
Any scientist would find this sentence astounding and immediately quit
reading the article. I actually read it and found that his conclusion
is that “social capital” is the big reason for Jewish success. In
other words, Jews are a cabal. Seemed to me that we have heard that a
lot before, for example about 80 years ago in Germany.
Incidentally, speaking of scientists, I have to say that your remark
in your blog post that Coyne and Barash “have no idea what they are
talking about when it comes to the scientific literature on race and
human variation” was way over the top. They know the scientific
literature very well, but they almost certainly do not read the genre
that you advocate.
At any rate what I would like to try to do is to bring the discussion
out of the clouds and to ask you some concrete questions. These are
not rhetorical: they are meant to find out how your viewpoint applies
to our everyday world.
1. My internist showed me the results of a shotgun series of lab
tests the other day. Some indicator of kidney function showed that I
was at 96% or, if I was Black, 105%. Is there anything wrong with
(BTW I think there is plenty wrong with it. If one looks at the
continental ancestry of a sample of black americans there is a nearly
uniform distribution between 0% to 100% African. In other words the
mixed ancestry of this population is so recent that the population has
no flavor of its own yet. This is an example of essentializing race,
but what is a better alternative?)
2. Should obsetricians be taught that there is a great risk of
prematurity and low birth weight among US black mothers, or should it
be denied in medical teaching as a hate fact?
3. The focus of much literature on culture and health, including the
Gravlee article, is on the black-white disparities in this country.
There is IMHO a glaring lack of attention to what is called the
“hispanic paradox”. The expectation of life at birth for hispanic
males in the US is 78 years, for white males 75.5, and for black males
69 years. (CDC Vital and Health Statistics, series 2 number 152,
2010, p. 11)
Seems to me that this is a solid kick in the pants to the agony in the
literature about poverty causing ill health. My view is that we might
learn something useful by studying hispanic good health. Do you think
hispanic epidemiology should have more focus in medical anthropology?
4. Do I do anything useful if I replace the word race with the word
ancestry in my lectures?