Posted by: Dan | February 4, 2009

Greg Laden: “You’re a Racist, Dan”

This is off the usual pattern of the blog (I have posted on “Race” before though), and I don’t have the readership to go up against the great almighty Greg Laden, but I couldn’t resist.

The story: apparently, one can speak of the “differences in gene distribution across various geographies” among members of the human species, but if you call that broad spectrum of biological diversity “race”, then you’re inflicting pain into non-whites and perpetuating racism.

No, I’m not kidding. The original post was titled “Insisting that ‘races are real’ is a self-fulfilling and overt racist act.”

Oh I completely agree that defining race is a tricky thing. But I’m a racist for thinking it okay to discuss race as a reality, and thinking that racial diversity is real (and something to celebrate)??

Update: Maybe it’s okay, because now Greg is a racist too. We all are, apparently. Talk about “politically-correct” as an ideology unto itself.

Update 2 and Main Follow-Up: an open question…

I mean, I know too well that care should be used when talking about race, and that the term is fraught with difficulty. For instance, trying to group people into races from the top-down just doesn’t work, as there are too many people in the world that fall in between conventional racial separations. Some have used the term “clines” to describe this gradual change in human genetics or traits over geography, and this seems appropriate in some sense, but it doesn’t fit with the word “race,” which tends to group people.

I tend to think of it in terms of gene flow and gene drift, which fits with another commonly held position, which is a bottom-up way of looking at race as extended families with lower degrees of mixing with the whole of humanity. It fits with my position, because gene flow is the mixing and homogenization of two or more populations over dozens of generations, whereas gene drift is about the accumulation of differences in eras of separation.

None of that really gets at the question “do races exist?”, it just better describes the pattern of human variation that exists. Period. So it really puzzles me why, on such an ambiguous word representing a complex series of observations about diversity (that really exist), someone can take such a polemic stand on the question and call everyone who says “yes” a racist. Do you think I’m off my rocker for getting peeved off about that?


  1. Dan, I doubt that when it comes down to it you are no more racist than anybody else.

    Pussy footing around race and racism is not a service to anyone.

    I think you are avoiding the point of my post. Which is, to restate one more time, the usual biological use of the word “race” to describe humans is highly problematic and not very useful, is misleading and uninformative, causes undue misunderstanding of the nature of humans etc. etc. BUt, in addition to sucking as a term, also has negative social consequences. So why would one want to persist in using the term on a day to day basis?

    Do don’t.

    This is not hard!

  2. Greg,
    I agree mostly, but coming into the discussion it seemed that you were simply taking political correctness to a ridiculous extreme. Maybe you are.

    But I am learning a lot in the discussion, I’ll not deny. You probably will turn out to be largely correct on most aspects of the discussion, and I’ll use it as a learning experience.

    We’ll see. Until then, let me quote Mayr:

    “Because I hate beating around the bush, I have sometimes been called dogmatic. I think this is the wrong epithet for my attitude. A dogmatic person insists on being right, regardless of opposing evidence. This has never been my attitude and, indeed, I pride myself on having changed my mind on frequent occasions. However, it is true that my tactic is to make sweeping categorical statements. Whether or not this is a fault, in the free world of the interchange of scientific ideas, is debatable. My own feeling is that it leads more quickly to the ultimate solution of scientific problems than a cautious sitting on the fence.”

  3. Dan, I have agreed with all your posts over on “GLB” and have lost a bit of respect for Laden. The biological use of the term “race” is totally defensible and entirely definable in exactly the way you define it–as a matter of gene flow, drift, and isolation/connection over time. If more biological “spokespeople” came from the botanical side of the science (if ANY did!) we would have no trouble grasping this concept. I’ve been out of academia for ages but I suspect that still no one bats an eye when reading of a geographic race of buttercups. (A quick Google of “botanical races” yields plenty of current papers with the phrase…)

    However, I’m afraid this is going to be one of those semantic wars we will inevitably lose (and that should probably be past-tense), just as we have historically had to be careful to use the currently correct terminology for any word that attempts to categorize humans (words for traits such as sexual-orientation, mental competence, etc. I am waiting for the day when “sex” equals “sexism;” will botanists still be able to categorize ginko trees without spelling out their relevant genotypic components each time?). The point is, whenever a previous term falls into disfavor, a new one is rapidly sought, as we seem to HAVE A NEED FOR such terms–for good, scientific reasons, not to mention common discourse.

    It would sure be nice if science could remain above the fray, but I’m afraid we’re doomed to submit to majority fiat in these sorts of questions, which certainly fall more properly under the discipline of linguistics.

    All in all I guess the paleontologists & anthropologists are going to have to come up with new terms to call the temporal populations they identify, but that is not at all the same thing as saying they didn’t exist. It will be interesting to see if botanists ever feel such pressure…

  4. OK, I forgot to check “Notify me of follow-up comments…” (can’t this please become the universal default?!) so am submitting this “comment” in order to so check. (Just in case that feature works even when checked! My experience on other sites has been poor.) Dan, feel free to delete this if you can still “keep me in the loop.” :-)

  5. Diane G makes a great point – if we were talking about another species, Greg wouldn’t object at all to racial classifications. He is motivated by political correctness and the ideology of liberal humanism.

    The term “race” is not in the least ambiguous. The same people who deny the existence of race relapse into making traditional racial distinctions in everyday life. They also insist on the reality of “cultures” which are vague and even more difficult to define.

    Where does one “culture” become another? Isn’t the diversity of views within a “culture” greater than the average distance between cultures? What is the precise definition of “African-American culture”?

  6. The main point of Greg and others over at his blog that sticks with me is that he’s basing his position entirely upon a cline or gradation of characteristics across geographies. If it were smooth gradations he was talking about, I’d be persuaded. But I don’t think that’s what you find.

    His secondary point is against my point of groups with unsubstantial mixing, decreasing substantially with geographic distance, prior to modern times. He cites archaeological and other studies showing “continuous mixing” over those time periods. But I find it hard to believe that this mixing was ever substantial. How then could we use genetics to trace the great paleolithic migrations, as National Geographic is doing with the Genographic Project?

    But I do agree that delineating race in today’s society is both problematic and counterproductive, especially from the top-down.

  7. Dan, your persistence is admirable. I understand your frustration and why you invoke an ad hominem (great almighty is not meant to be praise). Braces’ continuum – clinism argument has some merit, there is a gradual phenotypical change between Han and Chwang Chinese. However, it doesn’t explain the abrupt changes between Turkic peoples and Chinese who lived together for millennia. I also find Laden’s argument of “mixing” unconvincing – it ignores the reality that is sexual selection and the predilection of tribes to interbreed amongst themselves. Trade is ancient and went over long distances, BUT it was not done by the entire village, it was one or two guys who ventured far and wide.
    I’m not sure if you’re just tenacious, bored, or simply find this pseudo-science that offensive that it requires a response. Nonetheless, you won’t “win” and its a Quixotic task. Their opinions are fixed and fast, and nothing will change that position.

  8. Practical advice, Dan, do not mud wrestle with pigs.

  9. Onkel Bob,
    Exactly. Thank you for a fantastic example of how to better express the problem with Greg’s claims of “continuous mixing over long distances since the Mesolithic.”

    For myself, it was a little of all three. Some free time drew me in, and I tend to get tenaciously obsessed on single topics over a period of a few days and then let it go. That, plus I actually wanted to go and engage them to find out if there is anything to this “race doesn’t exist” schtick and learn from it in the process, one way or the other.

    And I’ve learned that they don’t appreciate the degree of inbreeding and internal selection that goes on in human groups. So, I’m not going back there, it’s a waste of time. :-)

  10. Dan, you’ve had it right all along. Everyone knows the common usage of “race” can be a powderkeg, but it’s ridiculous for scientists to deny the existence of populations with shared traits due to shared evolutionary history. If scientists had thrown up their hands just because variations tend to grade into one another or because low levels of gene flow persist between otherwise isolated populations, we’d have no workable taxonomy, for one thing. And how come no one’s bringing up the importance of being able to divide people into common-inheritance groups to medicine? Earlier I stumbled on this paper that inoffensively (IMO) talks about races, ethnic groups, “extractions (i.e., persons of “Mediterranian extraction”) in the pursuit of good diagnostic & treatment decisions:
    I’m not sure that kind of work could be done if we were stuck thinking only in clines…

    Thing is, Laden could have presented his liberal orthodoxy in a less calculatedly offensive way and we all could have agreed about the special sensitivity of “race” as applied to humans and that perhaps the term was best avoided whenever possible, but by preferring to insist on the scientific correctness of his position (far from generally accepted) and label anyone who disagrees a racist was just beyond the pale.

    I enjoy Science Blogs and spend quite a bit of time there, but the tendency of some of them to encourage the development of a pack of sycophants whose main occupation seems to be to pile-on in the comments sections is getting very old. (Do these people know how young they sound?)

    Early in the discussion when they started throwing troll accusations at you, I went to the “troll definition” pages posted and despaired. Dan, overall, but esp. up to that point, I thought you had been making your case in the most level-headed and unemotional way; if such can be construed as trolling, I can’t see how we can ever disagree, debate, or even hold different points of view. Bah! Trolling is being redefined (sound familiar?) to be “anything we don’t want to hear.”

    All through biology the utility of studying groups below the species level that share certain suites of traits is undisputed. Having names for these groups is just handy. (“Macro-genealogical clades” would do just as well as “race,” I guess–but pity the poor lecturer! :D) To treat the study of humans as a special-case is scientifically antithetical. (Not to mention reminiscent of religion…)

    –Diane, racist according to Greg Laden…

  11. Thanks Diane. Yeah, medical applications are one area that is informed better through understanding of group genetics. A similar article was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 on Race and Genomics.

    Personally though, I’m most intrigued by the Genographic Project though, which I mention too frequently perhaps… ;-)

    Anyway, thanks for the vote of confidence, and and stop back once in a while – I’m always up for some constructive criticism.

  12. More links… I highly recommend following Dienekes’ and John Hawks’ Anthropology blogs for people interested in this topic.

    Especially these two posts: Debunking the concept of ‘race’ … not and If you are going to “debunk” race with gene testing, please stop, with especially the latter providing both an explanation of the fuzziness of race (the idea of “pure” races is nonsense).

    Humans do not have discrete races. Racial groups in humans do not have reproductive boundaries. Genetic variation in humans is clinal. Allele frequencies of most human genes do not vary by much between populations.

    At the same time though, we have to remember Lewontin’s Fallacy — Depending on how you manipulate the genetic data, discrete races can be resolved or not.

    Put another way, it is true that my working definition of race involving “partial inbreeding” as a criteria is a slippery slope. At just what threshold does “partial inbreeding” become insignificant, and a proposed racial boundary disappear? Depending on your answer, you may agree that there are three major biological human races, that they can be subdivided further, or that there are none at all. Is it just arbitrary?

    Correction – I’ve moved these thoughts to a new post.


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