The Great Race Debate.

Don’t anyone get excited, it’s just cut and paste with some links for my record.

Race, a proponent’s perspective

by George W. Gill

Slightly over half of all biological/physical anthropologists today believe in the traditional view that human races are biologically valid and real. Furthermore, they tend to see nothing wrong in defining and naming the different populations of Homo sapiens. The other half of the biological anthropology community believes either that the traditional racial categories for humankind are arbitrary and meaningless, or that at a minimum there are better ways to look at human variation than through the “racial lens.”

Are there differences in the research concentrations of these two groups of experts? Yes, most decidedly there are. As pointed out in a recent 2000 edition of a popular physical anthropology textbook, forensic anthropologists (those who do skeletal identification for law-enforcement agencies) are overwhelmingly in support of the idea of the basic biological reality of human races, and yet those who work with blood-group data, for instance, tend to reject the biological reality of racial categories.

 Where does George Gill stand in the “great race debate?” Read on.
I happen to be one of those very few forensic physical anthropologists who actually does research on the particular traits used today in forensic racial identification (i.e., “assessing ancestry,” as it is generally termed today). Partly this is because for more than a decade now U.S. national and regional forensic anthropology organizations have deemed it necessary to quantitatively test both traditional and new methods for accuracy in legal cases. I volunteered for this task of testing methods and developing new methods in the late 1980s. What have I found? Where do I now stand in the “great race debate?” Can I see truth on one side or the other—or on both sides—in this argument?


 First, I have found that forensic anthropologists attain a high degree of accuracy in determining geographic racial affinities (white, black, American Indian, etc.) by utilizing both new and traditional methods of bone analysis. Many well-conducted studies were reported in the late 1980s and 1990s that test methods objectively for percentage of correct placement. Numerous individual methods involving midfacial measurements, femur traits, and so on are over 80 percent accurate alone, and in combination produce very high levels of accuracy. No forensic anthropologist would make a racial assessment based upon just one of these methods, but in combination they can make very reliable assessments, just as in determining sex or age. In other words, multiple criteria are the key to success in all of these determinations.
  While he doesn’t believe in socially stipulated “age” categories, Gill says, he can “age” skeletions with great accuracy.
I have a respected colleague, the skeletal biologist C. Loring Brace, who is as skilled as any of the leading forensic anthropologists at assessing ancestry from bones, yet he does not subscribe to the concept of race. [Read Brace’s position on the concept of race.] Neither does Norman Sauer, a board-certified forensic anthropologist. My students ask, “How can this be? They can identify skeletons as to racial origins but do not believe in race!” My answer is that we can often function within systems that we do not believe in.

As a middle-aged male, for example, I am not so sure that I believe any longer in the chronological “age” categories that many of my colleagues in skeletal biology use. Certainly parts of the skeletons of some 45-year-old people look older than corresponding portions of the skeletons of some 55-year-olds. If, however, law enforcement calls upon me to provide “age” on a skeleton, I can provide an answer that will be proven sufficiently accurate should the decedent eventually be identified. I may not believe in society’s “age” categories, but I can be very effective at “aging” skeletons. The next question, of course, is how “real” is age biologically? My answer is that if one can use biological criteria to assess age with reasonable accuracy, then age has some basis in biological reality even if the particular “social construct” that defines its limits might be imperfect. I find this true not only for age and stature estimations but for sex and race identification.

 “I am more accurate at assessing race from skeletal remains that from looking at living people standing before me,” Gill says.
The “reality of race” therefore depends more on the definition of reality than on the definition of race. If we choose to accept the system of racial taxonomy that physical anthropologists have traditionally established—major races: black, white, etc.—then one can classify human skeletons within it just as well as one can living humans. The bony traits of the nose, mouth, femur, and cranium are just as revealing to a good osteologist as skin color, hair form, nose form, and lips to the perceptive observer of living humanity. I have been able to prove to myself over the years, in actual legal cases, that I am more accurate at assessing race from skeletal remains than from looking at living people standing before me. So those of us in forensic anthropology know that the skeleton reflects race, whether “real” or not, just as well if not better than superficial soft tissue does. The idea that race is “only skin deep” is simply not true, as any experienced forensic anthropologist will affirm.

Position on race
Where I stand today in the “great race debate” after a decade and a half of pertinent skeletal research is clearly more on the side of the reality of race than on the “race denial” side. Yet I do see why many other physical anthropologists are able to ignore or deny the race concept. Blood-factor analysis, for instance, shows many traits that cut across racial boundaries in a purely clinal fashion with very few if any “breaks” along racial boundaries. (A cline is a gradient of change, such as from people with a high frequency of blue eyes, as in Scandinavia, to people with a high frequency of brown eyes, as in Africa.)
  “Clines” represent gradients of change, such as that between areas where most people have blue eyes and areas in which brown eyes predominate.
Morphological characteristics, however, like skin color, hair form, bone traits, eyes, and lips tend to follow geographic boundaries coinciding often with climatic zones. This is not surprising since the selective forces of climate are probably the primary forces of nature that have shaped human races with regard not only to skin color and hair form but also the underlying bony structures of the nose, cheekbones, etc. (For example, more prominent noses humidify air better.) As far as we know, blood-factor frequencies are not shaped by these same climatic factors.

So, serologists who work largely with blood factors will tend to see human variation as clinal and races as not a valid construct, while skeletal biologists, particularly forensic anthropologists, will see races as biologically real. The common person on the street who sees only a person’s skin color, hair form, and face shape will also tend to see races as biologically real. They are not incorrect. Their perspective is just different from that of the serologist.

So, yes, I see truth on both sides of the race argument.

Those who believe that the concept of race is valid do not discredit the notion of clines, however. Yet those with the clinal perspective who believe that races are not real do try to discredit the evidence of skeletal biology. Why this bias from the “race denial” faction? This bias seems to stem largely from socio-political motivation and not science at all. For the time being at least, the people in “race denial” are in “reality denial” as well. Their motivation (a positive one) is that they have come to believe that the race concept is socially dangerous. In other words, they have convinced themselves that race promotes racism. Therefore, they have pushed the politically correct agenda that human races are not biologically real, no matter what the evidence.

Consequently, at the beginning of the 21st century, even as a majority of biological anthropologists favor the reality of the race perspective, not one introductory textbook of physical anthropology even presents that perspective as a possibility. In a case as flagrant as this, we are not dealing with science but rather with blatant, politically motivated censorship. But, you may ask, are the politically correct actually correct? Is there a relationship between thinking about race and racism?

 Does discussing the concept of race promote racism?
Race and racism

 Does discussing human variation in a framework of racial biology promote or reduce racism? This is an important question, but one that does not have a simple answer. Most social scientists over the past decade have convinced themselves that it runs the risk of promoting racism in certain quarters. Anthropologists of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, on the other hand, believed that they were combating racism by openly discussing race and by teaching courses on human races and racism. Which approach has worked best? What do the intellectuals among racial minorities believe? How do students react and respond?

Three years ago, I served on a NOVA-sponsored panel in New York, in which panelists debated the topic “Is There Such a Thing as Race?” Six of us sat on the panel, three proponents of the race concept and three antagonists. All had authored books or papers on race. Loring Brace and I were the two anthropologists “facing off” in the debate. The ethnic composition of the panel was three white and three black scholars. As our conversations developed, I was struck by how similar many of my concerns regarding racism were to those of my two black teammates. Although recognizing that embracing the race concept can have risks attached, we were (and are) more fearful of the form of racism likely to emerge if race is denied and dialogue about it lessened. We fear that the social taboo about the subject of race has served to suppress open discussion about a very important subject in need of dispassionate debate. One of my teammates, an affirmative-action lawyer, is afraid that a denial that races exist also serves to encourage a denial that racism exists. He asks, “How can we combat racism if no one is willing to talk about race?”
  “How can we combat racism,” asks an affirmative-action lawyer, “if no one is willing to talk about race?”
Who will benefit?

 In my experience, minority students almost invariably have been the strongest supporters of a “racial perspective” on human variation in the classroom. The first-ever black student in my human variation class several years ago came to me at the end of the course and said, “Dr. Gill, I really want to thank you for changing my life with this course.” He went on to explain that, “My whole life I have wondered about why I am black, and if that is good or bad. Now I know the reasons why I am the way I am and that these traits are useful and good.”

A human-variation course with another perspective would probably have accomplished the same for this student if he had ever noticed it. The truth is, innocuous contemporary human-variation classes with their politically correct titles and course descriptions do not attract the attention of minorities or those other students who could most benefit. Furthermore, the politically correct “race denial” perspective in society as a whole suppresses dialogue, allowing ignorance to replace knowledge and suspicion to replace familiarity. This encourages ethnocentrism and racism more than it discourages it.
Dr. George W. Gill is a professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming. He also serves as the forensic anthropologist for Wyoming law-enforcement agencies and the Wyoming State Crime Laboratory.

Race in biology and anthropology: A study of college texts and professors
Leonard Lieberman, Raymond E. Hampton, Alice Littlefield, Glen Hallead
Central Michigan University

Information about social issues is underemphasized in college science education. This article takes the race concept as an example of this neglect. We review the history of the race concept and report the current status of the concept in textbooks and among professors. Responses to surveys of faculty at Ph.D.-granting departments indicate that 67% of biologists accept the concept of biological races in the species Homo sapiens, while only 50% of physical anthropologists do so. Content analysis of college textbooks indicates a significant degree of change over time (1936-1984) in physical anthropology but a lesser degree in biology. We suggest several reasons for the dissimilarity in the two disciplines. We propose continued use of the concept for some infrahuman species, while abandoning its application to Homo sapiens. For those biologists and anthropologists who continue to use the concept, scientific accuracy can be achieved by the presentation in lecture and text of the following ideas: first, consensus among scientists on the race concept’s utility and accuracy does not exist; second, there is more variation within than between so-called races; third, discordant gradations due to natural selection, drift, and interbreeding make consistent racial boundary lines impossible to identify; fourth, past use of the race concept has had harmful consequences; fifth, the most precise study of human hereditary variation maps one trait at a time; and sixth, racial labels are misleading, especially as most populations have a cultural designation.

Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease.

Neil Risch,1,2 Esteban Burchard,3 Elad Ziv,3 and Hua Tang4

Two arguments against racial categorization as defined above are firstly that race has no biological basis [1,3], and secondly that there are racial differences but they are merely cosmetic, reflecting superficial characteristics such as skin color and facial features that involve a very small number of genetic loci that were selected historically; these superficial differences do not reflect any additional genetic distinctiveness [2]. A response to the first of these points depends on the definition of ‘biological’. If biological is defined as genetic then, as detailed above, a decade or more of population genetics research has documented genetic, and therefore biological, differentiation among the races. This conclusion was most recently reinforced by the analysis of Wilson et al. [2]. If biological is defined by susceptibility to, and natural history of, a chronic disease, then again numerous studies over past decades have documented biological differences among the races. In this context, it is difficult to imagine that such differences are not meaningful. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a definition of ‘biological’ that does not lead to racial differentiation, except perhaps one as extreme as speciation.
A forceful presentation of the second point – that racial differences are merely cosmetic – was given recently in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine [1]: “Such research mistakenly assumes an inherent biological difference between black-skinned and white-skinned people. It falls into error by attributing a complex physiological or clinical phenomenon to arbitrary aspects of external appearance. It is implausible that the few genes that account for such outward characteristics could be meaningfully linked to multigenic diseases such as diabetes mellitus or to the intricacies of the therapeutic effect of a drug.” The logical flaw in this argument is the assumption that the blacks and whites in the referenced study differ only in skin pigment. Racial categorizations have never been based on skin pigment, but on indigenous continent of origin. For example, none of the population genetic studies cited above, including the study of Wilson et al. [2], used skin pigment of the study subjects, or genetic loci related to skin pigment, as predictive variables. Yet the various racial groups were easily distinguishable on the basis of even a modest number of random genetic markers; furthermore, categorization is extremely resistant to variation according to the type of markers used (for example, RFLPs, microsatellites or SNPs).

Genetic differentiation among the races has also led to some variation in pigmentation across races, but considerable variation within races remains, and there is substantial overlap for this feature. For example, it would be difficult to distinguish most Caucasians and Asians on the basis of skin pigment alone, yet they are easily distinguished by genetic markers. The author of the above statement [1] is in error to assume that the only genetic differences between races, which may differ on average in pigmentation, are for the genes that determine pigmentation.

Complete item here

Other Niel Risch publications

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