One thing that continues to annoy me whenever my internets get into a discussion about race is that invariably, very nearly everyone gets it wrong. The most recent example of this is, of course, when some Stormfront morons declared war on Pharyngula.
On the one hand you have the common racists, which are wrong for obvious and uninteresting reasons, but on the other you have the “enlightened” people who claim race is entirely a social construct, or at least of no significance whatsoever. They’re wrong too.
The following is an excerpt from Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, which I finished a few weeks ago. It may be the clearest explanation I’ve seen so far.
It is genuinely true that, if you measure the total variation in the human species and then partition it into a between-race component and a within-race component, the between-race component is a very small fraction of the total. Most of the variation among humans can be found within races as well as between them. Only a small admixture of extra variation distinguishes races from each other. That is all correct. What is not correct is the inference that race is therefore a meaningless concept. This point has been clearly made by the distinguished Cambridge geneticist A. W. F. Edwards in the recent paper called ‘Human genetic diversity: Lewontin’s fallacy’. R. C. Lewontin is an equally distinguished Cambridge (Mass.) geneticist, known for the strength of his political convictions and his weakness for dragging them into science at every possible opportunity. Lewontin’s view of race has become near-universal orthodoxy in scientific circles. He wrote, in a famous paper of 1972:
It is clear that our perception of relatively large differences between human races and subgroups, as compared to the variation within these groups, is indeed a biased perception and that, based on randomly chosen genetic differences, human races and populations are remarkably similar to each other, with the largest part by far of human variation being accounted for by the differences between individuals.
This is, of course, exactly the point I accepted above, not surprisingly since what I wrote was largely based on Lewontin. But see how Lewontin goes on:
Human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations. Since such racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance.
We can happily agree that human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations. That is one reason why I object to ticking boxes in forms and why I object to positive discrimination in job selection. But that doesn’t mean that race is of ‘virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance’. This is Edward’s point, and he reasons as follows. However small the racial partition of the total variation may be, if such racial characteristics as there are are highly correlated with other racial characteristics, they are by definition informative, and therefore of taxonomic significance.
It’s not surprising that Lewontin’s1 views are most popular in the US, where casual racism is so common many smart people are so eager to dissociate themselves from it they swing too far in the other direction.
Dawkins then goes on to say that if we have a person and we are told about his sex, we immediately know more about the shape of his genitals, though not with absolute certainty. That is to say, our uncertainty about some of his attributes is reduced. Similarly, if we are told this person is black, our uncertainty about a number of his attributes, such as (but not exclusively) the color of his skin, is reduced as well, so it’s intuitively obvious that race cannot be exclusively a social construct.
The whole thing is worth reading, though the book as a whole is not his best. If you’re going to buy it, buy the hardcover version. It’s expensive, but the book relies on pictures too much for the paperback to be very useful.
Incidentally, contrary to what aforementioned Stormfront morons claim, there is no conclusive causative link between race and IQ. It’s true that blacks on average have a lower IQ than whites in the US, but that difference disappears once you adjust for class (the lower classes tend to have lower IQs than the upper classes, of course, given the strong correlation between IQ and education levels), and the fact that blacks on average tend to be lower class than whites seems to be more of a result of discrimination based on racism than it is of anything inherent in blacks.2
Either way, this whole discussion makes me tired. Talking to either side in it is like talking to a brick wall.
1 It should also not be surprising that Lewontin is an erstwhile compatriot of Gould’s, and a longtime opponent of the straw-man “genetic determinism” of evolutionary psychology.