Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

December 13, 2010

To study humankind, AAA responds

This morning I received an email from the communication director of the American Anthropology Association. The contents are on the web:

AAA Responds to Public Controversy Over Science in Anthropology

Some recent media coverage, including an article in the New York Times, has portrayed anthropology as divided between those who practice it as a science and those who do not, and has given the mistaken impression that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Executive Board believes that science no longer has a place in anthropology. On the contrary, the Executive Board recognizes and endorses the crucial place of the scientific method in much anthropological research. To clarify its position the Executive Board is publicly releasing the document “What Is Anthropology?” that was, together with the new Long-Range Plan, approved at the AAA’s annual meeting last month.

The “What Is Anthropology?” statement says, “to understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems.” Anthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture. As such, it draws on the theories and methods of both the humanities and sciences. The AAA sees this pluralism as one of anthropology’s great strengths.

Changes to the AAA’s Long Range Plan have been taken out of context and blown out of proportion in recent media coverage. In approving the changes, it was never the Board’s intention to signal a break with the scientific foundations of anthropology – as the “What is Anthropology?” document approved at the same meeting demonstrates. Further, the long range plan constitutes a planning document which is pending comments from the AAA membership before it is finalized.

Anthropologists have made some of their most powerful contributions to the public understanding of humankind when scientific and humanistic perspectives are fused. A case in point in the AAA’s $4.5 million exhibit, “RACE: Are We So Different?” The exhibit, and its associated website at www.understandingRACE.org, was developed by a team of anthropologists drawing on knowledge from the social and biological sciences and humanities. Science lays bare popular myths that races are distinct biological entities and that sickle cell, for example, is an African-American disease. Knowledge derived from the humanities helps to explain why “race” became such a powerful social concept despite its lack of scientific grounding. The widely acclaimed exhibit “shows the critical power of anthropology when its diverse traditions of knowledge are harnessed together,” said Leith Mullings, AAA’s President-Elect and the Chair of the newly constituted Long-Range Planning Committee.


Up until the last paragraph this is an anodyne statement. Who could disagree with: “Anthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture. As such, it draws on the theories and methods of both the humanities and sciences. The AAA sees this pluralism as one of anthropology’s great strengths.” But the explosion of anger from biologically and scientifically oriented anthropologists on the web is drawn from a deeper layer of lived experience. On a raw level many of them feel that some factions in cultural anthropology are obscurantists who are fluent in rhetoric which they utilize in power-plays and politics. There are anthropologists who do deny the deep insights of the scientific method in illuminating reality. In fact, they reject the naive realism at the heart of science as it is practiced. For them science is a swear-word, and connotes an affinity with oppression and all the negative abstractions in fashion at a given time (e.g., patriarchy, heternormativity, capitalism, Eurocentrism, etc.). Of course as I note above scientific anthropologists are not given to tolerating the verbal circumlocutions and incantations of their non-scientific colleagues with much grace themselves. There is a deep cultural chasm, and these sorts of arguments over words in obscure institutional documents are only triggers for a persistent roiling debate.

As for the last paragraph, it illustrates the selectivity of a discipline which attempts to contextualize, and often has a skeptical relationship toward a positive framework. I believe that race is a social construct. The Hispanic identity, which consists of people of indigenous Amerindian, European, and African ancestry, and all their combinations, has been racialized. The Islamic identity has also been racialized. Benjamin Franklin stupidly contended that only the English and Saxons were true whites, with all other Europeans, including Nordics, being swarthy.

But just because a construct has a social element does not mean it has only a social construct. Because of the Left-liberal anti-racist egalitarian bias of anthropology, the academy in general, and the dominant narrative of Western society as a whole, there is a strong tendency to assert flatly that “race does not exist” as a biological concept. There is no interrogation of the concept of race except to refute its utility. This is not a case of agnostic skepticism washing away illusions, but a case of skepticism applied in a fashion to obtain a clear and distinct objective result which corresponds to reality. When it comes to race many become naive realists who accept that biological concepts can be falsified or verified in a simple and straightforward fashion. There is all of a sudden one Way of Knowing which presents us with indubitable truths.

Here is L. L. Cavalli-Sforza (my question in italics):

7) Question #3 hinted at the powerful social impact your work has had in reshaping how we view the natural history of our species. One of the most contentious issues of the 20th, and no doubt of the unfolding 21st century, is that of race. In 1972 Richard Lewontin offered his famous observation that 85% of the variation across human populations was within populations and 15% was between them. Regardless of whether this level of substructure is of note of not, your own work on migrations, admixtures and waves of advance depicts patterns of demographic and genetic interconnectedness, and so refutes typological conceptions of race. Nevertheless, recently A.W.F. Edwards, a fellow student of R.A. Fisher, has argued that Richard Lewontin’s argument neglects the importance of differences of correlation structure across the genome between populations and focuses on variance only across a single locus. Edwards’ argument about the informativeness of correlation structure, and therefore the statistical salience of between-population differences, was echoed by Richard Dawkins in his most recent book. Considering the social import of the question of interpopulational differences as well as the esoteric nature of the mathematical arguments, what do you believe the “take home” message of this should be for the general public?

Edwards and Lewontin are both right. Lewontin said that the between populations fraction of variance is very small in humans, and this is true, as it should be on the basis of present knowledge from archeology and genetics alike, that the human species is very young. It has in fact been shown later that it is one of the smallest among mammals. Lewontin probably hoped, for political reasons, that it is TRIVIALLY small, and he has never shown to my knowledge any interest for evolutionary trees, at least of humans, so he did not care about their reconstruction. In essence, Edwards has objected that it is NOT trivially small, because it is enough for reconstructing the tree of human evolution, as we did, and he is obviously right.

L. L. Cavalli-Sforza contends that between population genetic variation is not trivially small. This is clear from the fact that one can discern village-to-village genetic distinctions in Europe. Human variation exists, and it is not trivial. It is useful for phylogenetics, significantly impacts salient phenotypes, and, risks for particular diseases. The social construction of race has real biological raw materials. At one end, the transformation of white European converts to Islam through changes in personal appearance into de facto “People of Color” are matters of social construction in totality. In contrast, the blackness of a Dinka from Sudan is a matter of biological categorization. The categorization of Egyptian Arabs with obvious African admixture as “white” in the US Census is a matter of social construction due to bureaucratic contingency, and illustrates the intersection of biological reality and social fluidity. It is well known that when foreign Arabs with obvious black admixture visited the American South there was often a debate as to whether they were subject to segregation, illustrating the tensions between social norms (which would have coded them as black), bureaucratic function (which coded them as non-black usually), and biological reality (where they were an amalgam of a minor black African component with a dominant white Arab component).

Of course it is true that on any given trait variation can span populations. But even in the case given above, of sickle cell, the correlations with ancestry and population are striking. A lower boundary value is that 75% of sickle cell suffers are of mostly African ancestry, despite only 15% of the world’s population being of mostly African ancestry. These statistics refute a platonic model of race, but they do not refute the population-thinking which is at the heart of much of modern biology, pure and applied.

All that said, the word “race” is fraught with a lot of historical baggage. Therefore to study population wide variation you need to focus on “fine-scale population structure” and what not. This trend would be something of interest for cultural anthropologists of science to study. Race is just a word. Even a term as widely accept as species exhibits a fair amount of flexibility on the margins. But the underlying biological patterns, and the instrumental utility of those patterns, can not be denied.

Addendum: I often use “human” or “humankind” where earlier norms would be to use “man” or “mankind.” My main rationale is I don’t want annoying comments objecting to the term. The concept which I’m pointing to is the same no matter the pointer, and so I don’t mind changing it to facilitate my intent to communicate clearly and without undue extraneous baggage.

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