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racial divisions

prospect online, june 2008

I was intrigued when I heard that Mark Pagel was going to review my book Strange Fruit. The debate about race has traditionally pitted so-called 'race realists' against anti-racists. Race realists argue that races are natural divisions of humankind, anti-racists that race is a social construction and has little biological value.

Strange Fruit is an attempt to rethink this debate and show why both sides are wrong. Races are not natural divisions but they do have biological consequences and can be of pragmatic use in scientific and medical research.

Pagel is a 'race realist'. I had hoped that he would engage with the arguments in the book so we could move the debate into fresh territory. What I didn't expect was that he would engage with the arguments without seemingly having read the book. Pagel has simply assumed that I am regurgitating old-fashioned anti-racist criticism and he has responded with old-fashioned race realist rebuttals.

Pagel suggests that 'observations' about racial differences 'collide' with my 'insistence' that race 'is nothing more than a social construct, having little to do with biology'. Those very observations are, in fact, at the heart of Strange Fruit. Like Pagel, I point out that 'We can all plainly see that most Kenyans look different to most Inuit. Virtually everyone can distinguish between the physical characteristics of the major racial groups.' I demonstrate at length how 'it is possible - in fact quite easy - to distinguish genetically between races.' I explore the possibilities of infering racial origin from skull shape and argue that such techniques do not herald a return to nineteenth century racial science. Having done all this it is galling to read that I apparently 'deny what everybody knows', perhaps because I am not 'grown up enough to accept the facts'.

Far from claiming, as Pagel suggests, that 'unless "race" corresponds to absolute boundaries, it is a useless and damaging concept', Strange Fruit is a polemic against that very argument. The book opens with a defence of James Watson's right to have made his controversial comments about race and a critique of the Science Museum for gagging him for having gone 'beyond the point of acceptable debate'. I say clearly that that 'a scientific debate that is policed to ensure that opinions do not wander beyond acceptable moral and political boundaries is no debate at all'. I defend not only debate on race but research, too, pointing out that 'It makes little sense to ignore such differences or to ban the use of racial or ethnic categories in research'.

All this might not fit into Pagel's stereotype of what a critic of race realism should argue. But the debate, like human differences themselves, no longer fits into neat categories.

The debate about race is not about whether genetic differences exist between human populations, but about the significance of such differences. The fact that a BMW saloon is of a different colour to a Boeing 747 is of little significance to most people. The fact that one has an internal combustion engine and the other a jet engine is of immense consequence if you want to travel from London to New York. If we want to understand the significance of any set of differences, in other words, we have to ask ourselves two questions: Significant for what? And in what context? One of the problems is that these two questions get too rarely asked.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries races were viewed as fixed groups, each with special behaviour and physical characteristics that distinguished one from the other. The races could be ranked on an evolutionary hierarchy, with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom. Today, with a few exceptions, race realists reject the idea that there are essential, unbridgeable, unchangeable differences between human populations, or that differences signify inferiority or superiority. So how do they define a race? Usually as 'an extended family that is inbred to some degree' in the words of Steve Sailer of the Human Biodiversity Institute. 'Roughly defined', the philosopher Max Hocutt argues 'a member of race R is an individual whose forebears were members of race R'. Just as an 'animal is a coyote if it is descended from a coyote', so 'a human being is an Afro-American if she is descended from Americans whose forebears were Africans'. He accepts that 'we cannot say with precision how big, how cohesive or how closed a breeding group must be or even how long it must last to count as a distinct race', but this is immaterial for what he calls the 'workaday definition of race'.

A workaday definition might be useful for dinner table discussions but is hardly the basis of a scientific argument. There is no coherent explanation, for instance, why one breeding population, such as inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa, is a race, while another, such as Protestants in Ireland, are not. For Steve Sailer that is no problem: Northern Ireland Protestants, he argues, are a distinct race!

But once everything from the British royal family to the entire human population can be considered a race (because each is an 'extended family inbred to some degree'), then the category has little value. Mark Pagel thinks it 'patronising' to believe that scientific categories require more substance; a pity he did not tell us why.

Does all this mean that the category of race has no value in science? Not at all. There is no such thing as a 'natural' human population. Migration; intermarriage; war and conquest; forced assimilation; voluntary embrace of new or multiple identities whether religious, cultural, national, ethnic or racial; any number of social, economic, religious, and other barriers to interaction (and hence to reproduction); social rules for defining populations such as the 'one drop rule' in America - these and many social other factors impact upon the character of a group and transform its genetic profile. That is why racial definitions are so vague.

Yet, many of the ways in which we customarily group people socially - by race, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, geographic locality and so on - are not arbitrary from a biological point of view. Members of such groups often show greater biologically relatedness than two randomly chosen individuals. Such groups have often been ghettoized or chosen to self-segregate. Hence they are inbred to a certain degree and can act as surrogates, however imperfectly, for biological relatedness. Categories such as 'African American', 'people of Asian descent' and 'Ashkenazi Jew' can be important in research not because they are natural races but because they are social representations of certain aspects of genetic variation. They can become means of addressing questions about human genetic differences and human genetic commonalities. The irony is that in order to study human genetic diversity, scientists need socially defined categories of difference. The concept of 'race', however, remains a crude, and unscientific, tool through which to understand human genetic differences.

We should indeed, as Mark Pagel suggests, be 'grown up enough to accept the facts'. That means taking a pragmatic view of human differences rather than, as both sides in the debate do, making a fetish of race for ideological reasons.