If we fail to make distinctions in language, we get in trouble. Such is the case when we look at two different seemingly related words: race and racism. In a desire to rid the world of the latter, some social scientists want to deny the former's existence. Denial of a reality, notably for political purposes, does not make the reality less so—it only unecessarily complicated things. In this article, Lorna Salzman writes: "Racism, as opposed to race, IS a social construct, based purely on an individual's physical appearance or phenotype. Being a social construct, it can be deconstructed and abolished. Those who vehemently deny the existence of race at the same time demand equal treatment or representation of that race, strangely enough."
by Lorna Salzman
It's hard to cut through the Politically Correct internet drone of "Race is a social construct". There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of self-appointed experts anxious to purge science of any taint of Political Incorrectness, that is to say, of any odor of racism. What has been purged, however, is any consideration of evolution and genetics, an objective study of which supports what most of us observe daily: that there are physical characteristics that are shared by one group of people that are not shared with other groups.
Your eyes aren't deceiving you. People from Japan look different from people from Africa who look different from native Americans who look different from Caucasian whites who look different from Australian aborigines. Some people prefer to regard these as geographic populations or subpopulations, but in so doing they are actually acknowledging racial differences though under a different name.
Where do evolution and genetics come in? Right here, full stop. People look different and share characteristics with other members of their group or population or race because they inherited these from their parents, who inherited from theirs, and so on. They inherited these because they inherited their ancestors' genes which then form a genome, the total sum of the genes in your cell.
In the course of evolution, geographically separated populations of humans adapted to their local environment and its pressures. Adaptive characteristics persisted in their genome such as malaria immunity in Africans. But maladaptive ones such as Tay Sachs disease also can be embedded in the genome of certain races or populations. Both of these remain there as long as there is limited interbreeding and there are no other evolutionary pressures.
Phenotypical (external appearance) traits also remain, such as the eyelid fold in Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, kinky hair in (most) Africans, and of course different skin colors. Oriental people always have black hair, for example, as do many tribal peoples. When races interbreed, new gene combinations occur which may or may not bring phenotypic changes. The fact that racially mixed offspring often have "in-between" characteristics is proof of the fact that physical traits are the result of many genes, not just one.
This is not to say that some of these characteristics might not exist in the genome of other races, but if they do, they are rarely expressed just BECAUSE they are rare: because almost no one in their racial group carries the genes for them so they cannot spread widely. The typical genome of a race retains these characteristics. The typical genome of another race does not. Races have statistically significant phenotypic differences, which reflect genuine genetic differences. This is what the word "race" means.
Genes do not get passed on individually but as part of the genome. There is rarely a characteristic that is inherited through one gene except possibly a mutation. You get half of your genome from your father and the other half from your mother. Unless there are severe environmental changes or mutations, the genes passed on in the genome remain stable even as they recombine in each generation.
Racism, as opposed to race, IS a social construct, based purely on an individual's physical appearance or phenotype. Being a social construct, it can be deconstructed and abolished. Those who vehemently deny the existence of race at the same time demand equal treatment or representation of that race, strangely enough. The medical profession would have a difficult time curing disease if it were prohibited from knowing a person's race since each race has its own physiological weaknesses or strengths and is entitled to get the most appropriate treatment for them.
It is instructive to read a review by Paul Gross last year of Race: The Reality of Human Differences, by Vincent Sarich , a biochemist and anthropologist, and Frank Miele, editor of Skeptic magazine. Here is a quote from Gross:
It is no surprise that races or recognizable varieties in other species turn out to be distinguishable—although not necessarily easily—at the level of genetics......obvious external differences among the races of a plant or animal species turn out to result from genetic differences. although those can sometimes be subtle. But of course this must be so! For a race or variety to persist in time, its obvious distinguishing traits must be to some significant extent heritable. And if heritable, the traits must reside ultimately in genes or more likely in combinations of genes. "Traits" are the products of gene sets - genomes - acting in particular environments over particular life histories....however fuzzy these sets may be, they are still sufficiently stable as biological subpopulations, varieties, extended families and "races" to be identified as such. Which word one uses doesn't matter: the physical reality does.The person most responsible for dismissing the notion that races exist is Richard Lewontin, in a 1972 paper in Evolutionary Biology, which was followed by two articles in the New Scientist and Nature. Lewontin's article was based on a statistical fallacy later pointed out by L.Cavalli-Sforza and A. Piazza and others, including one in BioEssays. These rebuttals involved complex statistical and genetic data and analysis. But here is the BioEssay conclusion regarding Lewontin:
It is not true that "racial classification is...of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance"..."it is not true, as Nature claimed, that "two random individuals from any one group are almost as different as any two random individuals from the entire world"... "and it is not true, as the New Scientist claimed, that "two individuals are different because they are individuals, not because they belong to different races", and that "you can't predict someone's race by their genes".BioEssays goes on to say: "Lewontin uses his analysis of variation to mount an unjustified assault on classification, which he deplored for social reasons" and then concludes: "A proper analysis of human data reveals a substantial amount of information about genetic differences. What use, if any, one makes of it is quite another matter. But it is a dangerous mistake to premise the moral equality of human beings on biological similarity because dissimilarity, once revealed, then becomes an argument for moral inequality".
It then quotes the geneticist R. A. Fisher that "the best causes tend to attract to their support the worst arguments, which seems to be equally true in the intellectual and in the moral sense".
The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.
Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.
She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.
Copyright ©2013. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at www.lornasalzman.com.