WITH JONATHAN MARKS
Jonathan Marks is a molecular anthropologist who teaches at
the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. He is author of Human
Biodiversity and What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee.
What are the conventional, popular understandings of race?
The folk understanding of race
is that there's a small number of basically different kinds of
people, perhaps localized to continents: Asians, Africans, Europeans,
Australians, Native Americans. But the idea is that there's a
small number of basically different flavors of people, perhaps
color-coded for your convenience: yellow, white, red, black. That's
the common sense understanding of race.
This doesn't reflect
natural patterns of variation, because of course, the peoples
of Africa are exceedingly diverse, the peoples of Asia are exceedingly
diverse, and the peoples of Europe, of course, are exceedingly
diverse, as well.
So it's not that we're reading natural patterns
of variation and simply extracting this idea from nature, but
what we're doing is we're deciding that certain patterns of variation
are less important that others, and certain patterns of variation
are more important that others. We decide that the difference
between a Norwegian and an Italian is not significant and so we'll
place them in the same category. And we decide that the difference
between a Persian and a Somali is important; and so we'll place
them in different categories.
What does genetics tell us about human variation?
The modern study of genetic variation, since
about the 1970s, tells us essentially that people are similar
to those nearby and they're different from those far away. And
that no more tells us that there's three kinds of people than
it tells us there are seven, or twelve, or thirty-eight kinds
of people. Most genetic variation is encapsulated within any local
group - that is to say, all human groups have people that are
taller, or shorter, or heavier, or skinnier, or more extroverted
or more introverted.
So the range of different kinds of people
are found within all groups and what genetics was able to do was
to put a number on that. About 85% of detectable genetic variation
is located within groups. To the extent that there is between-group
variation, the majority of between-group variation is local, not
racial. And the amount of difference attributable to this large
group of people versus that large group of people is only a tiny
portion of the total of human variation.
What accounts for our patterns of variation?
The peoples of east Africa look
different from the peoples of western Africa, who look different
from the peoples of South Africa. And in fact, the peoples of
east Africa look more like the peoples of west Asia, and are genetically
more similar to the peoples of west Asia than they are to the
peoples of western Africa. Why is that? Because they're closer.
And the major variable determining biological similarity and biological
difference is geographical proximity. Why? Because people interbreed
with one another. And when human groups come into contact with
each other, what Cole Porter called "the urge to merge" has invariably
expressed itself. It didn't start with Columbus. It's been going
on through time immemorial.
Neighboring groups always have complex
economic and social relationships with their neighbors, and obviously
they marry their neighbors and they have complex forms of what
anthropologists used to sexistly call "bride exchange." We may
hate the people next door, but we're related to them. Why? Because
our ancestors interbred.
Throughout European history we certainly
know about all kinds of migrations and invasions and dispersions.
We know less about the history of pre-colonial Africa, because
we have less preserved in writing, but that certainly doesn't
mean that people were just sitting there in one place. Obviously
people were migrating and people were moving and the history of
populations is a dynamic, flowing continuum. And that's why the
patterns that we discovered genetically - the continuity of form,
and the continuity of populations from place to place exists -
because people are always moving and interbreeding and intermarrying.
two major kinds of gene flow. One would be a large-scale invasion
or migration. The other kind would be population A intermarries
with population B, population B intermarries with population C,
population C intermarries with population D. And of course, this
way genes from here can move a long distance over long periods
of time, depending upon the amount of interbreeding that goes
on. We know it happens, and it happens everywhere. It happened
even in the Pleistocene. Neanderthals had trade routes and where
goods flow, obviously genes flow as well. Those traveling salesman
jokes were probably there back in the Pleistocene as well.
used to think that human history consisted of population branching
and was always divergent. These people moved here and stayed here,
and then those people moved over there and stayed over there,
and this group moved over there and stayed over there. That's
incredibly simplistic because what we know is that human evolution
is not constantly divergent, human evolution is reticulated -
that is to say, it's like the capillaries in a blood stream. They
branch apart, they come back together. These people go over here
and they encounter and interbreed with others.
What is non-concordance and what does it tell us about race?
By non-concordance, what
we mean is that different individual traits in the human species
don't share the same patterns of variation across geographic space..
Skin color for example, varies with latitude. Certain people have
brown hair and blue eyes. Other people have blond hair and blue
eyes. And even though there's a statistical association of those
particular features, they're not invariably expressed with one
another. Certainly dark skin is present all over the world in
different populations. Indigenous Australians, indigenous peoples
of India, indigenous peoples of Africa are all very darkly pigmented
even though they're not particularly closely related. And one
of the interesting problems with the theory of race is that if
you look at the peoples of, for example, the Indian sub-continent,
you find people who are darkly pigmented like Africans, have hair
like East Asians, and facially resemble Europeans. They live on
the continent of Asia. What do you do with these people?
are non-concordant because genes are inherited independently of
one another to a large extent. We can look at patterns of body
parts and patterns of body form, but it's very hard to associate
specific genetic patterns with specific body patterns. Interestingly
though, we generally find the same geographical patterns whether
we look at bodies or whether we look at genes. And that pattern
is that most variation is within the group. We don't find large
clusters of relatively homogeneous people.
What are clines?
anthropology we talk about clinal variation. Cline is a term that
was devised by the biologist Julian Huxley to represent a geographical
gradient in a particular trait across a species. So if you've
got a broadly distributed species that has a particular form,
whether it's body shape or color - let's say in the north it looks
different from the south but they're the same species - you can't
really draw a line and say there's two kinds of frogs that have
this or that particular form. Instead, the variation is gradual
and continuous. What Huxley argued is that we should talk not
about discrete racial variation, but about gradual clinal variation.
And about 30 years after Huxley proposed the term clines, anthropologists
came to recognize that pretty much all variation in the human
species is clinal - that is to say, continuous and gradual across
geography, and not discrete, not racial.
Frank Livingston wrote in the early 1960s "There are no races,
there are only clines," what he was doing was summarizing epigrammatically
what anthropologists had come to realize since about World War
II, with the work of Ashley Montagu: that the human species simply
doesn't come patterned the way we thought it came patterned, and
that the way we were thinking about natural patterns of human
variation was really topsy-turvy.
What is wrong with the claim that some 'races' are naturally
accomplishments are obviously a consequence, to some extent, of
the abilities that they have. If you didn't have the ability to
do something, you couldn't do it. But the fact that you didn't
do it, the fact that you didn't accomplish something, doesn't
necessarily mean you didn't have the ability to do it. It simply
means that for whatever reason, it didn't happen. So there's a
basic asymmetry here between, on the one hand, the observation
of a performance, and the inference of an ability from the observation
of that performance. If the performance exists, you know the ability
existed. But if the performance doesn't exist, you can't tell
if the ability didn't exist.
Yet there's this wonderful fallacy
out there that I can compare what groups of people accomplish
and somehow infer what groups of people are capable of, or what
they're not capable of. And so there's this argument, for example,
that because blacks are so overrepresented in the NBA, and so
underrepresented in the AMA it means that they're really talented
at basketball and not so talented at medicine. That this disparity
is somehow a reflection of their underlying natural abilities
is simply a fallacy because we can't draw a conclusion about underlying
abilities from observations of performance.
If we could infer
the existence of innate basketball talent, innate basketball ability,
from the observation of the overrepresentation of blacks in the
NBA, we then have to infer the existence of comedy genes in Jews
by virtue of the overrepresentation of Jews in comedy. Or the
overrepresentation of Irish in the police force. Obviously there
are all kinds of factors that go into occupational specializations
and they're not necessarily reflections of underlying abilities.
If we don't have a scientific way to study underlying abilities,
we shouldn't be talking about it as if it's scientific discourse,
because it's not. It might be fun to talk about at a bar, but
it's not scientific discourse.
As scientists, we can only study
what we can measure. And we can only measure performances. That's
all we have access to. We can't measure abilities.
occurs within a context of a lived life, and the conditions of
growth and development and nutrition. Now, a successful performance
obviously involves things like training and coaching, psyching
out, teamwork, nutrition, the conditions of growth, your own self-image,
what you think you're good at. And unless we can control these
kinds of variables, we simply can't look at, say, the success
of East African marathoners as evidence for East African native
ability in running. It's not to say that East Africans don't have
native abilities. But the onus is on people who declare that there
is some sort of natural ability to be able to tell us exactly
where they see natural ability, and how they know it's not caused
by other things. If you have many causes and one effect, it's
unscientific to simply say, "I isolate one of these causes without
doing appropriate controls." That's why we do controls in science.
If you go back to the record books, you find many prominent
Jewish basketball players in the 1940s. You go to the 1910s, 1920s,
in both America and in London there were many prominent Jewish
boxers. Where are the great Jewish boxers today? I mean it, it
almost sounds like a contradiction in terms, "great Jewish boxer."
Where are the Jewish boxers today? Well, they're in medical school.
That wasn't an option in the 1920s.
As doors open that enable
different populations to rise socioeconomically, and go into the
middle class, boxing is a less attractive option. If you're a
parent, having your son beat up for a living just isn't that attractive
a job to encourage your child to go into if you perceive that
there are other options open to him. If you perceive that there
aren't other options open to him, it's certainly as good as anything
else. And that's why of course, something like boxing is very
much class dominated. Which is not to say that there are no boxers
from other socioeconomic groups. But it's a sport that has traditionally
been drawn from the lower socioeconomic classes. Why? They don't
perceive they have other options in life.
What is the relationship between Social Darwinism and eugenics?
After Darwin wrote The
Origin of Species and pretty much convinced the scientific community
that competition was the cause of diversity in the animal and
plant world, the question was, "Well, was this similar to what
went on in the social world?"
And a very heterogeneous movement
called Social Darwinism - which appropriated the label of Darwin
because it had scientific cache - arose, which sought to justify
economic and social inequalities by recourse to natural patterns
of variation. That is to say, the people at the top deserve to
be at the top, because their natural abilities are being brought
out, and the people at the bottom deserve to be at the bottom,
because they suck.
The political implications of this were
that if we were to develop child labor laws, welfare to aid the
poor, etc. that would be a subversion of the natural order, because
the natural order is the cause of the social hierarchy. The people
at the top deserve to be at the top, the people at the bottom
deserve to be at the bottom, and if we help the people at the
bottom rise, well, they shouldn't be rising, because they're where
they deserve to be. And what the Social Darwinists argued was
for government to get off the backs of the people. They didn't
want a government intervention in the rapacious capitalism of
the late 19th century. They were rightly very quickly perceived
as simply apologists for the greedy rich, and the movement pretty
much fizzled out by the turn of the 20th century. But it was replaced
by the idea of eugenics.
And what eugenics did to the Social
Darwinist movement was to preserve one idea - namely that the
social hierarchy is a reflection of differences in natural endowment.
But it reversed one point very importantly. And that is instead
of the Social Darwinists wanting government off the backs of the
people what the eugenicists wanted was direct government intervention.
They wanted federal laws to restrict immigration and to sterilize
the poor against their will.
The ideas of eugenicists were very
conducive to totalitarian governments in the 1920s and 1930s.
They wanted strong centralized authority to impose their scientific
will on the population. There was a very strong degree of utopian
dreaming that if everybody just gave geneticists a lot of authority
and a lot of money and stood out of the way, we would build a
How many "races" did traditional anthropologists come up with?
Anthropologists who originally looked at Europeans
as a race, or a subspecies, and Africans, and Native Americans,
and Asians, were quickly faced with the fact that Europeans don't
all look alike. If you go from northern Europe to southern Europe,
we now know of course, what we see as a gradient, what we see
is a cline, or many different clines of features. But, if your
mindset is that to analyze it scientifically, you must impose
discrete barriers and classify it, you're faced with how do you
break up the continuous variation in Europe into discrete groups?
so they began to find races within races. So within the European
race they found the Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean races: three
discrete kinds of people that don't really exist within a larger
group, "Caucasians" that doesn't really exist, in contrast to
another group. So the word "race" took on this very nebulous characteristic.
There were races within races within sub-races. In a book called
The Races of Europe, Carlton Coon found over 20 races in Europe
Of course this was the imposition of a fundamentally
wrong-headed approach on the question of analyzing human variation.
What they were trying to do was box it, to classify it, when what
they needed to do was to analyze it, and study it in terms of
asking what kinds of patterns are there, instead of assuming and
imposing the patterns on the variation.
What do we make of the claims of geneticists that our "natures"
are determined by our genes?
One of the problems in interpreting the statements of
geneticists even today is that 95% of everything a geneticist
says is code for "Give me more money." Therefore, when a geneticist
says that everything important in life is genetic, you have to
realize that they have a conflict of interest. Why? They're geneticists.
Of course they want you to believe that everything important in
life is genetic, in the same way an Oldsmobile salesman tells
you that an Oldsmobile is the best car on the road. That might
be true, but of course they have a vested interest in your believing
Behavioral genetics is a wonderful endeavor. It's a really
interesting field to be in - studying the genetic differences
that lead to behavioral differences. But it's focused on a really,
really small part of the pie. When we look at the differences
in behavior that exist in the human species, we know how that's
patterned. It's patterned in a very particular way. Most behavioral
variation in the human species is localized between groups - that
is to say, most behavioral variation in the human species is:
the French eat with forks, the Chinese eat with chopsticks. The
French use nasalized vowels, the Spanish don't. This group of
people eats this kind of food, and considers that other kind of
food repellent. This group of people classifies kin in this way,
they classify their kin in a different way. These group of people
wear saris, this group of people wear pants.
This is cultural
variation. It accounts for the great majority of behavioral variation
in the human species and we know something about it. We know it's
caused by the circumstances of history. How do we know this? Immigrant
studies. We know that people immigrate, and they adopt the ways
of other people in a generation, maybe a couple of generations.
But we know that very quickly one group of people can do what
another group of people does and it doesn't have to do with their
On the other hand, within any population, there are
behavioral differences. There are people with different personality
traits; some more introverted, some more extroverted; some better
at math, some more verbally agile. These are due to a lot of different
causes, some of which may be historical. Some of which may result
from the circumstances of upbringing. Some may be due to nutrition.
Some may be due to differences in genetics.
The important thing
here though, is that the extent to which genetics influences behavior
in humans has got to be a very, very small part of the spectrum
of the range of human behavior, because the vast majority of difference
in human behavior is not genetic in origin; it's cultural in origin.
of the things that anthropology showed me is that even observing
a consistent physical difference between populations is not adequate
evidence for that difference being genetic. The fact that it's
always there doesn't mean that it's innate. And a nice example
of this was revealed by the anthropologist Franz Boas in the early
part of this century, who studied variation in skull form in immigrants.
the late 19th century, it was shown that different groups of people
had, on the average, different shaped skulls; some longer, some
broader. And these differences in skull shape were found to be
very consistent and very uniform. Different populations tended
to have similarly shaped skulls. Boas wanted to question whether
or not skull shape was sensitive to the conditions of life.
what Boas determined by studying immigrants to Ellis Island, from
two different populations that were known for having different
shaped skulls, is that after they were living in the United States
for a considerable number of years, their skull shapes changed.
In other words, the fact of immigration and growing up in a different
place changed the shape of your skull.
This isn't a radical
proposition. We know that the body is sensitive to the conditions
of life, and to the conditions of development. Boas simply showed,
in a very graphical and in a very statistical sense, that a particular
body form that was thought to be innate, that was thought to reflect
a constitutional genetic character - the shape of your skull -
was, in fact, much more sensitive to the conditions of life, much
more plastic than had previously been thought.
In the history
of anthropology, what we find is that more and more traits that
are thought to be innate - traits that are thought to be natural
differences, because they've always been there - are more and
more shown to be ephemeral, the results of social history.
we need to recognize is that standards of evidence are crucial
here. And standards of evidence now have to dictate that to infer
a genetic basis for difference requires genetic data. Simply observing
phenotypic differences, simply observing differences that are
measurable in body form, or in performance are an inadequate basis
on which to infer a difference in the genes, because patterns
of genetic variation don't map very easily onto patterns of physical
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