Anthropology Attacked: Race Revival

From the time of Franz Boas and the immigrant head shape studies discussed in the previous section, anthropology provided new ways to think about race. Boas should have won. Race was debunked. But since 2000 there has been a race revival, with an attack on anthropology. How did the race revival happen?

In some ways Boasian anthropology did win. Very few people today claim biological appearance leads directly to a particular language or culture–this is part of the legacy we can claim when asked What is Anthropology? But in other ways, Boas lost. Almost immediately, race became culturalized. People simply accepted that talking about culture was the polite way to talk about race (see part 3 on Culture, Cultures, Cultural Relativism). And now there are setbacks for the anthropological challenge to race as biological-genetic grouping–but see the 2012 post Teaching Race Anthropologically for updated resources.

One sign of this loss came in 2007 when James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA, tried to publicly revive ideas about race and intelligence:

Dr. James Watson told The Sunday Times that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours–whereas all the testing says not really”. He said there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal but “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

His views are also reflected in a book published next week, in which he writes: “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”. (Milmo 2007)

How could this happen? One reason comes from specialization in anthropology after Boas. Ruth Benedict sold a lot of books about culture, but most cultural anthropologists gave up the head-measuring calipers, leaving that work to biological anthropologists. Almost everyone in the world has heard about culture, but outside of professional journals, few people know about Boas’s head-measuring studies. Even some anthropologists forgot about the head-measuring, mathematical Boas.

For demolishing race as a biological category, many anthropologists came to rely on the geneticist Richard Lewontin. In the 1970s, Lewontin was on the cutting edge of research showing there was much more genetic variation within any so-called race than between the so-called races. This allowed anthropologists to confidently teach that Race is a Social Construction, point to the importance of culture, and then seal the deal with Lewontin’s genetics. Since 1987, claiming an African Eve as our common human mother seemed to forever drive a stake in misconceptions of race as immutable biology (see section More Mothers than Mitochondrial Eve)

But after fifty years of teaching about race, the message still does not register. In part this is because of internal problems. The first problem is that the phrasing of social construction, makes it sound like anthropologists claim people are all biologically the same (for related issues, see Gender is a Social Construction). That is not true: Human biological variation is real and important, and anthropologists know it. It is simply not usefully grouped according to traditional races. The second problem is the separation of the social from the biological–we have not made it clear how the social world has biological implications. That U.S. black infant mortality is more than twice white infant mortality has certainly much more to do with social conditions than biology, but obviously mortality is a biological effect (see the section on Race Becomes Biology). The third problem has been the popularity of forensic anthropology, which seems able to identify race from bones. It is not always apparent how race identification is a probabilistic guess about social categories, not an absolute measure deduced from bones. (See the next section on Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race for extensive discussion.)

Meanwhile, the world of genetics has changed. Lewontin is not cutting-edge, and some biologists now talk about Lewontin’s Fallacy (Edwards 2003). Citing Lewontin–and his colleague Stephen Jay Gould–makes anthropologists look like we are relying on old-fashioned ideas. This trend became notable when Armand Marie Leroi wrote a 2005 opinion piece for the New York Times, “A Family Tree in Every Gene.” Now a dashing young geneticist–not just the old geneticist James Watson–says traditional race ideas are just fine. Meanwhile, several anthropologists accuse Gould of mismeasurement, but provide little context for how to correctly measure the skulls and what they say about human biological variation.

Then there is the search for drugs targeted toward specific racial groups, along with companies claiming to measure ancestry with gene swabs. Now there is a race revial, a whole new world of race that looks a lot like the old world of race. Leroi’s op-ed has never been refuted at the level of the New York Times. Combine this unrefuted editorial with the tremendously irresponsible reporting of Nicholas Wade, always quick to accept anything with a genetic-claim, always quick to report on race resuscitations, and it seems the official position of the New York Times is to accept traditional race thinking–see the 2008 article by John Hartigan, Jr., “Is Race Still Socially Constructed?” which rightly takes Wade to task, and the Social Science Research Council has an important set of responses to Leroi at Race and Genomics.

Rather than examine problems with the anthropological message, some prefer the more benign possibility that the anthropological message has just not had enough time to sink in, has not been loud enough, or has not been eloquently communicated. However, the message has been coherently delivered for fifty years, communicated by some of the most effective spokespeople and writers: Ruth Benedict, Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould, and Jared Diamond in Race without Color (1994). Nevertheless, the race revival regularly occurs within the group of people who call themselves scientists, from people who should have heard and understood the message, and are now attacking anthropology–for the latest, see Social Construction of Race = Conservative Goldmine.

We need alternative approaches. Fortunately we can turn to the next section, Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race (and see also the 2012 post, Teaching Race Anthropologically).

Next: 1.6 – Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race
Previous: 1.4 – Human Skulls: Boas Head Shape Studies Revalidated

To cite: Antrosio, Jason, 2011. “Race Revival: Attacking Anthropology on Race and Science.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 5 June 2011. Last updated 15 September 2017.