April 22, 2009

What does skin colour say?

Observable differences are always tempting. It is tempting to say that men behave in a typically manly fashion or women in a typically womanly fashion simply because we observe the difference between the two genders- and subtly alter our behaviours because of our sexual preferences towards them. The same is true to a limited extent of race: we all know what a black man, a white man and an Asian man look like: we can establish that difference quickly and easily- like we can tell the difference between a cat with dark fur and a tabby- but unlike we can discern other important differences whether environmental (wealth or education) or genetic (a particular disease- say Huntingdon's or Cystic Fibrosis). Modern science has taught us over the last couple of generations to distrust our perceptions- things as common sense as the solidity of a table or the emptiness of air and space have become illusions, whereas a probabilistic universe and the counter intuitive notion that the earth is a suburb not a centre within the universe have gained almost universal assent. Most of us would agree that race is one of those things that we can agree to discard: to treat a white woman, black woman and asian woman differently because of their ethnicity is unjust. But a myth still surrounds race- propagated by people like Charles Murray- that the common sense difference between people of different skin colours masks an actual difference.

The genetic record does not bear out those assertions. When you begin to look at other characteristics in human beings you perceive odd and perplexing maps of genetic familiarity. Fingerprints link for example Europeans, black Africans and East Asians where the characteristic pattern is a loop, aboriginies and Mongolians have whorls in their prints whereas the Khoisan of South Africa share with Central Europeans the fact that their finger prints betray patterns built of arches. Earwax divides Europeans and Africans from East Asians- as Stanley Garn puts it the difference between wet and dry earwax is the difference between West and East. Bodily hair unites Europeans, the Ainu of Japan and Aboriginies- not to mention semitic peoples as opposed to Americans and Africans. Blonde hair brings together aboriginies, the Berbers of North Africa and Europeans. Europeans, Inuit and Ainu share curly hair as opposed to Asians, native Amerindians who have straight hair and sub Saharan Africans, Arabs, Indians, Malaysians and Phillipinos who have curled hair. The lactase enzyme is present in northern Europe, Arabia and northern India and Africa but not in southern Europe, eastern Asia, Amerindian peoples or Aboriginies. In blood groups high incidence of A blood group and some B group are found in England, Iceland, Lapland, Melanesia, Polynesia and the Shosone of Southern Africa whereas high A and high B groups are found in Wales, Italy, Thailand, Finland, Egypt and China. We could go on but this seems to validate Stephen Jones's conclusion that what goes on on the skin of a human being has little to do with what goes on underneath it.

What this reinforces is a notion that the world is complicated- that a Charles Murray in his simplistic and intellectually naive graphs of black and white intelligence could never gather. Of course there are commonalities between groups of human beings that live near by each other and have interbred for generations- but equally there are important differences within population groups. Given the spread of human beings and their migration (a fact of history of longer provenance than the nation state) it is unsurprising to find that genes are spread widely in the world and that no simplistic equivalence to geography will give you the genetic sub groups that split humanity. Furthermore genetic distinctions do not neccessarily overlap- a Swede's dentistry may have a lot in common with the dentistry of other Swedes in that he has shovel shaped incisor teeth- but those teeth are not shared with other Europeans but with East Asians. Kenneth Kidd, the biologist, has demonstrated that genetic difference within populations is neither predictable nor discontinuous. Variation in truth is fairly random and though successful variations cluster, they cluster on a micro level and even then the boundaries between different groups are permeable. Even though small groups may share characteristics- larger groups generally do not share a set of characteristics which would identify them as a group apart from other human beings.

The heart of this is an argument that scientifically the concept of large races- based on geographical units and imagined cultural communities- make about as much sense as the sun circling the earth does, and it is based on the same kind of data- not scientific proof or experiment but the supposition that an apparant distinction (skin colour in this case) is a real one. What goes on above the skin, as Stephen Jones argues, doesn't tell you much about what goes on below.

6 comments:

edmund said...

couldn't you sya the same of class- that there's no simple caste system that applies to all social relationshps. Does that mean it done's exist? Similary for sexes there are very very few diffences that are qunatitive rather than qualitive in diffence, does that mean sex doesn't exist?

What point Murray acaully makes are you contradicting here?

liposuctionguide said...

Skin color does not mean anything, it`s just a skin depth, if you peel it off, that`s the same human being, we are created by the same God.It`s just that environment make that difference.

James Higham said...

Yes, the differences are cultural rather than skin based, aren't they?

edmund said...

liposuctionguide (and pehrpas james) moraly i totally and unambiguously agree with you -and about skin colour it's not even the same as race -it's about the altitude of your racial ancestors (virtualy te only race aborignes have in common with central africans is the human race) http://biology.plosjournals.org/archive/1545-7885/1/1/figure/10.1371_journal.pbio.0000027.g002-L.jpg

Having said that that dones't mean race doens't exist. The same kind of points could be made about extended familieis-but that doesn't mean extended families don't exist or are gentically distinct. or even that they have no importance.

Gracchi said...

Edmund I'm afraid I don't understand what you are going on about class. When it comes to race, I want to be clear about what you are saying. I am afraid your comment doesn't really make sense. I do not argue that there are no differences between groups of human beings- only that those differences are very small and often they are a specialised response to a very local environment- they are not continent or even in many cases country wide.

Liposuctionguide skincolour does nto make any difference I agree- indeed that was what I was arguing. Environment and culture and in some cases small genetic mutations in small populations make differences to who we are.

James the differences between human beings are often cultural and that means they are man made and could be overcome- I agree with you.

Edmund I have no idea how you are using the word race- could you define to me some races and the genetic differences that make them separate races.

On the point about Murray, what I'm challenging is his grasp of basic statistical theory- but I'll leave Murray aside as I don't know enough about him to make the arguments cogently- I'd instead challenge you, could you describe a race? Because the examples I've given above do not seem to support the thesis that there are any broad racial genetic groups (there may be smaller groups of people who are specialised to a local terrain- eg living at high altitude).

edmund said...

Gracchi my point about class was that like race it covers very broad phenomena and any division is fuzzy around the edges. So no arbiter division of classes (e.g. the ABCDE category) would cover all class differences in one country let alone the globe. Does that mean class is a meaningless concept which you reject totem as you seem to be doing race

Obviously many of these differences are with "very small" racial groups of people of millions or less your obsession with bashing Murray in this regard is very strange since a lot of his stuff on this has been about Jews a classic case of a small racial group

"Very small" depends what your talking about it's not so obvious for sickle cell, or malaria or propensity to alcoholics or phenotype

You are seriously arguing differences in race are never “continent mind” is your point that races move around so white people live in Nigeria and black people in Britain or that there are no racial differences between say the natives (ie pre 1600 inhabitants) of Australia and Europe?

a classic case of a race would be Sephardim Jews vs. Ashkenazi Jews or Americans of west African descent regard to those of European descent, these categories are fuzzy in both cases (like C1 or C2 say) - but in both cases one group even excluding close relatives is on average more closely related to the members of that group by an order of magnitude even excluding close relatives. Race is about genetic relationships when they go beyond close family. Just as a Class like A can include many sub classes such as the gentry so a race like "African-American" or "white American" can include many subsets

So is your point on Murray you know nothing about his definitions of race but are attacking him anyway that seems rather harsh and very like this bog! Incidentally he must have some knowledge of spastics as he has a doctorate in political science from MIT!

A race I think the best definition I've heard is an extended family that is inbred to some degree but even if there's some hole in that it still wouldn’t mean it dons exist Frankly I find it a lot harder to think of an adequate definition of class (“a category of those with a similar social status in some sense" is the best definition that springs to mind.) But I’m not going to run around stating "class is a myth" -even though big defences in class between posh and common are often less important than say the differences between an mp and the PM