Teaching resources about racial concepts: their biological validity and various cultural expressions
November 5, 2007 3:22 PM   Subscribe

I need teaching resources about race: the biology of human "races"; why "race" is not biological but social; how racial categories have shifted over time and place; and related questions on teaching about race? This is as a supplement to reading The Mismeasure of Man in a university "Critical Thinking" class. I need more science and verifiable cross-cultural examples to back up my "there are no biological races" claim.

Give me your best clear, scientific teaching resources (websites, books, examples) about why the idea that humans belong to different biological races has been discredited.

Two objections I'm especially interested in answers to:
1. Sickle cell anemia, Tay Sachs disease etc. Some groups do have biological characteristics in common (eg susceptibility to certain diseases). Why not then say that race has some usefulness in making biological predictions?

2. "Why are blacks such great athletes? I heard they have extra tendons in their legs, and more ATP." (!!!) I have a student who is very attached to racial categories. What do scientists make of the observation that, for example, many Kenyans seem extra well-suited to be long distance runners? Is there any good science on this?

Another request - evidence that race categories are arbitrary and shifting.

3. Pictures and info on different racial categorization systems that have been used in different places and times -- the more different from present-day USA, the better.

4. Sources of quotes etc on past racial categorizations (eg, the filthy Irish) that would discriminate against people who would now be considered "white".
posted by LobsterMitten to Science & Nature (38 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Here is a list of publications by Dr. Jonathan Marks, a biological anthropologist at the University of North Carolina. Most of them are written in VERY technical scientific language (albeit with a dash of snark), but you might find what you need. Marks book, What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, IIRC has some material on the biological irrelevancy of "race" as well.

Good luck! I myself am interested to know what else is suggested so I can go read it.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:31 PM on November 5, 2007

In 1972, Richard Lewontin showed that genetic differences between individuals swamped those between races.

This is a very interesting study that shows that " 'Seeing' others as members of a race may not be inevitable, as many psychologists had thought. Instead, the tendency to notice and remember someone’s race may be a changeable byproduct of brain mechanisms that evolved for another reason: to detect shifting coalitions and alliances. By creating a social context in which race was uncorrelated with coalitional alliances, we were able to drastically decrease the extent to which subjects noticed and remembered other people’s race" More info here.
posted by AceRock at 3:31 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Steve Sailer is a great source for commentary on race-related research and news. He writes a lot about the middle ground of the cognitive dissonance you're expressing: society says that race isn't biological, but (the objections you're looking to answer).

Though he's not on the side you've staked out, I have found his work usefully thought-provoking.
posted by J-Train at 3:32 PM on November 5, 2007

Look at the work of sociologist Troy Duster, for a start. He's published quite a few clearly-written articles that discredit some of the more naive ideas about the biology of race.
posted by googly at 3:32 PM on November 5, 2007

How the Irish Became White might be useful to you.
posted by streetdreams at 3:36 PM on November 5, 2007

More about Steve Sailer. I would avoid this guy like the plague. He's a "scientific racist" who writes for VDARE, a racist and anti-immigrant right-wing publication/website. Apparently he's also affiliated with the Pioneer Fund. Not to mention he's a journalist with no science background whatsoever.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:37 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

half snark, half serious: Dr Seuss' The Sneeches

Is it your thesis that, while there are obvious biological differences between people, and even groups of people, there are no distinct boundaries between these groups, because of interbreeding, so you can no longer call them 'races'?

Or are you confusing the idea of race with the repugnant idea that one race is superior to another?

Sorry to not really answer the question by providing teaching resources.
posted by DarkForest at 3:39 PM on November 5, 2007

Look, it depends on what you mean by "race". But claims that there are no racial differences on a genetic level are provably false.

There are no individual genetic tags one can use to unambiguously place any given individual into one of a small number of "race" baskets. But the groups we refer to as "races" do have statistical differences genetically. To claim that there are no differences at all is also wrong.

You can see that in the distribution of certain genetic diseases. Sickle Cell Anemia is from Africa. Cystic Fibrosis comes from Northern Europe.

If you teach that "race is not biological but rather is social" then you will be lying to your students. The real answer is that it is both.

The genetic differences between the races are relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but don't try to claim that they don't exist.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:44 PM on November 5, 2007 [5 favorites]

The American Anthropological Association has created the Understanding Race website. I think it might be useful for your purposes.
posted by craichead at 3:48 PM on November 5, 2007

Nicholas Wade's "Before the Dawn" was required reading for an integrative biology I took last year about race in america. While I am not totally certain that the book was as explicit in its conclusions as my professor was because the two have become entangled over time, but it does a very good job of aggregating current evo-bio theories about man's evolution and diaspora, and one of the assertions was that genetic variation within a "race" was larger than variation between "races".

The answer to the first point really comes down to multiple different genetic traits that have evolved simultaneously due to conditions that are imposed by geography on a population. The book definitely covers that.

However, it can be argued the superficial and flawed concept of 'race' can be a good indicator of what geographical region your forebears evolved in, which can be useful in a topic like medicine in order to evaluate what one might want to be aware of.
posted by Large Marge at 3:52 PM on November 5, 2007

Cavalli-Sforza is the granddaddy researcher in this field.

And if you read him, SCDB, you'd know that there is more genetic diversity in Africa than the rest of the gene pool put together, and hence the notion of any African "race" is nonsensical.

The fact that certain genes predominate in certain areas does not mean that there are meaningful group distinctions that align with the groups traditionally called "races".
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:56 PM on November 5, 2007

sickle cell and tay sachs are both due to genetic abnormailities. they aren't diseases so much as malfunctions. you don't inherit a suceptibility to either--you either get it or you don't, based on whether you are born with both recessive genes.

in the case of sickle cell, it's pure evolution: the mutation survived in malaria-prone parts of africa because although it was terribly painful, it protected the carrier from malaria and allowed them to live long enough (albeit uncomfortably) to reproduce. when a malaria epidemic hit, the sickle cell sufferers were much more likely to survive.

tay sachs is probably a better example of how society influences ethnic characteristics, in that it is concentrated almost exclusively in descendents of western european jews, but not their neighbors of other faiths. this was due to social isolation (both self-inflicted, by marrying within the faith, and externally, due to prejudice, ghettoization, and deportation) which led to a smaller gene pool. a smaller gene pool makes abnormalities more common.

you might look into the amish community, which has a small enough gene pool that a lot of children have a strange vitamin deficiency that can only be treated by prolonged exposure to blue light.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:58 PM on November 5, 2007

On blood types not corresponding to the usual definition of race: These patterns of ABO and Diego blood type distributions are not similar to those for skin color or other so-called "racial" traits
posted by DarkForest at 3:59 PM on November 5, 2007

Not five minutes ago, I finished reading "Why There Are No Human Races," by Kwame Anthony Appiah. According to the citation, this can be found in his book, Color Consciousness, 1996 Princeton University Press.

In this paper (or book chapter?), Appiah argues that, if we look at the history of the word, "race," we can see that there is no applicable referent for the term. In other words, what people thought they were referring to when they discussed race simply does not exist. It is a term that depends on faulty science (namely, lack of knowledge about how genetics works).

I don't know what you need this for, but this paper was an easy read. It was very clear, easily understood, and quite compelling.
posted by Ms. Saint at 4:01 PM on November 5, 2007

Racial Hygiene by Robert Procter (Science history of Nazi race theory)
Who is Black by F. James Davis (Sociological look at race and how America uniquely defines it)
In the Name of Eugenics by Kevin Kelves (History of Eugenics movement)
The Living Races of Man by Carleton S. Coon (Race in science as it was in 1965, See also, The Origin of Races)
posted by Toekneesan at 4:10 PM on November 5, 2007

Probably not the best choice for introductory-level teaching, but perhaps interesting as background: Thicker than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie.
posted by RogerB at 4:13 PM on November 5, 2007

David Roediger has written a number of books looking at race in the U.S. as a (fluctuating) social construct -- e.g., Working Toward Whiteness and The Wages of Whiteness.
posted by scody at 4:30 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: SCDB: I have no intention of lying to my student. That's why I'm seeking scientific resources. I mention the angle I'm coming from so that the thread wouldn't fill up with people saying "but there's really no such thing as race". I'm interested in the complex truth of the science as we understand it now. (Also, please understand that my students are white and are coming from a profound place of ignorance on these issues -- a student I talked with today did not know that there were people in Australia before the English came, or that there was anybody black living in Australia, for example.)

All: these resources are awesome; keep 'em coming and I will report back on anything else good I find.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:56 PM on November 5, 2007

Google also suggests The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium. Seems worth a look for teaching.
posted by RogerB at 5:15 PM on November 5, 2007

Not sure is Spencer Wells's book and companion series The Journey of Man would help. He traces our ancestry back to a single tribe using DNA evidence. Race comes up as an issue, but it is not the focal point.
posted by ALongDecember at 5:21 PM on November 5, 2007

1. Sickle cell anemia, Tay Sachs disease etc. Some groups do have biological characteristics in common (eg susceptibility to certain diseases). Why not then say that race has some usefulness in making biological predictions?

2. "Why are blacks such great athletes? I heard they have extra tendons in their legs, and more ATP." (!!!) I have a student who is very attached to racial categories. What do scientists make of the observation that, for example, many Kenyans seem extra well-suited to be long distance runners? Is there any good science on this?

One useful observation is that these two populations aren't coextensive. It's the descendants of American slaves who have a higher rate of sickle cell anemia. Some people of Kenyan descent may fall into that category, but most don't. The guys winning those Olympic marathons aren't at higher risk for anemia than anyone else.

When racists talk about race, they talk about it like it's a cluster of inherited traits. They want to be able to say that dark skin, sickle cell anemia, athletic ability, big dicks and low test scores occur in exactly the same population, so that they can look at someone's skin color and predict all the others.

The truth is that those traits, even the ones that are inheritable, don't always cluster all that reliably. There are populations of black-skinned men with high sickle cell anemia rates, and populations with low ones. There are populations of big-dicked men with great basketball skills, and populations with terrible ones. So it turns out that skin color is a lousy predictor of those other traits, even though they're all inheritable to some extent.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:24 PM on November 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

I know exactly the film you should show to your class!

It is called "Race — The Power of an Illusion". It covers the answers to all your criteria. It covers a historical perspective of how race became defined, the social and economic reason for it and the ways that science has been used to justify racial discrimination/difference.

The film features people of many scientific backgrounds; historians, biologists, etc. who offer a whole picture of why and how race has come to be defined.

I saw this film when I attended a workshop about race and immigration. It blew my mind and I learned so much about it. It's also appropriate for younger people as there is a segment of the film where high school students look at the issue of "race" using DNA and discover that it's only skin deep.
posted by loquat at 5:28 PM on November 5, 2007

"Why are blacks such great athletes? I heard they have extra tendons in their legs, and more ATP." (!!!) I have a student who is very attached to racial categories. What do scientists make of the observation that, for example, many Kenyans seem extra well-suited to be long distance runners? Is there any good science on this?

Also, I just want to extend my sympathy to you, this must be pretty trying.

I personally would line up some pictures of, say, a Bushman, a Zulu, a Masai, a Hutu, and an Ethopian, and ask if they are the same race.

You might find Charles Murray's extremely controversial writing on Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence a good starting point for discussion (albeit a discussion that might get out of control very quickly).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:36 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

when a malaria epidemic hit, the sickle cell sufferers were much more likely to survive.

Actually, I think you'd find in general mortality terms that the sickle-cell sufferers had very high mortality - they are anemic, after all. The key adaptive advantage is not really for them but for their heterozygous parents, who with a single mutated gene have red blood cells with a shorter lifespan than the normal 120 days which means the malaria parasite within infected RBCs is more likely to be digested before it matures. In effect, the homozygous sickle cell sufferers are sacrifices that enhance the survivability of the herd at the expense of the individual.

Sickle Cell Anemia is from Africa.

That's also not really true - it's not "racial" but has to do with the disease environment within which endogamous populations persist. It's a common enough mutation within humans (a single A->T nucleotide substitution that results in a change in the expressed protein residue from glutamic acid to valine) that it will selected for commonality within *any* population subject to persistent malaria. Sickle-cell anemia is also endemic in the aboriginal populations within India, the southern Arabian Gulf, and regions of Turkey and the Balkans. There appears to be 4 different clades, three of which originated in Africa and one in India.

There's a similar adaptive mutation against malaria, for example, thalassemia, which is common certain populations aboriginal to the Mediterranean, Thailand, and regions of southern China. The people living in these zones have no "racial" characteristics in common... all they do have is a continued assault by the malaria parasite.
posted by meehawl at 5:57 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I will strongly second the recommendation of Nicholas Wade's "Before The Dawn" as the very best book I have read on the subject. Unfortunately, it does not back up your assertion that "there are no biological races" or that "the idea that humans belong to different biological races has been discredited". Because there are races and that's a fact. The book deals with the period, before the advent of modern molecular genetics, where scientific opinion was that "race" is a social construct, and explains why recent advances in molecular biology, archaeology and anthropolgy have overturned it. It is definitely, to my knowledge, the best, most up-to-date treatment of th current state of scientific thought. (Disclaimer: I am a geneticist by trade, but human genetics is not my field).
posted by nowonmai at 6:03 PM on November 5, 2007

While it doesn't adequately set up a point-counterpoint in the way that you might want for a critical thinking course, another good, accessible introduction to post-race genetic theory is Spencer Wells' Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project.
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:17 PM on November 5, 2007

Response by poster: there are races and that's a fact

This gets to an issue that I am trying to sort out. There seems to be a good deal of academic consensus on the "there aren't races in the traditional biological sense" side -- but there do seem to be groupings of some sort, based on shared characteristics, so there's some sense in which physical traits do make a "race".

So, nowonmai, when you say that genetic evidence shows that there are races, what do you have in mind by that term? Is there a definition given in the book (assuming you have a copy at hand)?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:20 PM on November 5, 2007

RE #2 I wish I could find the exact article, but there was a long essay by Malcolm Gladwell on this topic a few years ago. Not a scientific study, but drawing from them.
posted by Listener at 7:30 PM on November 5, 2007

I heard they have...more ATP
This is actually trueish. From a 2004 Science article called 'Under the Hood' by C. Holden:
Bouchard, now at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, says his team looked at two enzymes that are markers for oxidative metabolism and found higher activity of both in the West Africans, meaning they could generate more ATP, the energy currency of the cell, in the absence of oxygen. The study suggests that in West Africa there may be a larger pool of people "with elevated levels of what it takes to perform anaerobically at very high power output," says Bouchard.
posted by kickingtheground at 7:42 PM on November 5, 2007

The March/April 1997 issue of The Sciences (now defunct, RIP), focused on race and is still some of the best stuff out there that I've read. Not sure if any of the research has been eclipsed, but anything in The Sciences was very thorough and well-researched.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:43 PM on November 5, 2007

I don't have the book to hand (I got it from audible so there's no index) and I don't want to say too much in case I get something wrong on such a sensitive topic, but in summary Wade's argument is that you can tell where somebody's ancestors come from by looking at their DNA; that there are well-characterised differences between peoples who come from geographically distinct regions. That's pretty much the biological definition of race, as I understand it. Of course, older ideas about race are often proved to be wrong (for instance, it is not sensible to group all black people together as a single race) but there is an emerging body of evidence that races exist. Although all the old "research" on the subject is mostly racist drivel, we now have tools to do some of this research properly and scientifically, and we might not like the results. Wade tries to stick to the science and shy away from difficult political implications, but it's inevitable that he comes up with some conclusions that some might call racist (such as Ashkenazi Jews and East Asians are statistically more intelligent than Western Europeans, etc).
I haven't read the latest Spencer Wells book recommended by anotherpanacea above, but it looks like that is an equally recent review of the science that might provide a counterpoint.
Before forking out for "Before The Dawn", you can get a taste of Wade's writing on the subject by looking at his writing for the NY Times. In fact, as teaching resources this might be more useful than the book.
It is my understanding that the consensus in the 1990s that there is no basis for race was based on a politically correct (I don't mean that in a bad way) rejection of old, wrong, racist ideas, rather than on any kind of rigorous genetic analysis. Now that we have the technology to sequence large numbers of individual human genomes, we will find out a lot about human genetic variation over the next five or ten years.
posted by nowonmai at 8:00 PM on November 5, 2007

If you teach that "race is not biological but rather is social" then you will be lying to your students. The real answer is that it is both.

This is overstating the objection. Here, to the best of my knowledge, is the state of the art regarding the scientific understanding of racial classification, genetics, and human disease:

(1) Humans can be roughly divided into groups according to ancestry - that is, sharing a similar 'family tree.' This means that they will (a) share more genetic material (genotype) than randomly paired individuals might be expected to; (b) have a common environmental background (e.g., their ancestors will have been exposed to similar environments), which their ancestors may or may not have similarly adapted to; and (c) possibly share some superficial (phenotypic) characteristics such as size, skin color, etc.

(2) Some of these phenotypic characteristics may have medical or physiologic import. The Sickle-Cell trait is one such characteristic. Others may be adaptations for weather, diet, or local diseases.

(3) Humans in many places at many times have classified one another on the basis of "race" - that is, observed superficial (phenotypic) characteristics such as skin color, hair type, facial characteristics, etc. These classifications frequently change over time and contradict one another according to location (compare the racial classification schemes in the U.S. vs. Puerto Rico vs. Brazil, for example). In some scientific literature, this is called SIRE (self-identified race).

(4) There is some limited evidence that SIRE maps loosely onto ancestry - that is, that the social classification of race is somewhat correlated with the genetic classification of ancestry.

(5) SO: Race has some usefulness in terms of making 'biological predictions,' but only to the extent that SIRE maps onto ancestry. So the fact that we often think of sickle cell anemia as a "black" disease is accurate only because our idea of 'black' maps loosely onto people of African ancestry. But there are two objections to this: (A) there are plenty of people that Americans consider "black" who do not have the sickle cell trait, most of whom came from areas of Africa outside the high-prevalence regions; and (B) there are plenty of people that we would not classify as black who have a higher prevalence of SCA, mostly from countries around the Mediterranean Sea, such as Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, and Syria.

Neil Risch is a geneticist at UCSF who has made the most persuasive case about the consonance between SIRE and ancestry. Here are three somewhat technical articles:

Risch, Neil. "Dissecting Racial and Ethnic Differences." New England Journal of Medicine 254, no. 4 (2006): 408-11.

Risch, Neil, Esteban Burchard, Elan Ziv, and Hua Tang. "Categorization of Humans in Biomedical Research: Genes, Race and Disease." Genome Biology 3, no. 7 (2002): 1-12.

Burchard EG, Ziv E, Coyle N, Gomez SL, Tang H, Karter AJ, Mountain JL, Perez-Stable EJ, Sheppard D, Risch N. "The importance of race and ethnic background in biomedical research and clinical practice." N Engl J Med. 2003 Mar 20;348(12):1170-5.

There has been plenty of negative response to his publications - should be easy enough to track down.

Here is an interesting article that discusses racial classification and health disparities in Puerto Rico. the upshot is that skin pigmentation (a measurable phenotypic characteristic) and social classification of race do not neatly map onto one another, and that the social idea of race has a greater effect on blood pressure than skin pigmentatino does.

Gravlee, Clarence C., William W. Dressler, and H. Russell Bernard. "Skin Color, Social Classification, and Blood Pressure in Southeastern Puerto Rico." American Journal of Public Health 95, no. 12 (2005): 2191-97.

Some others:

Duster, Troy. "Race and Reification in Science." Science 307, no. 5712 (2005): 1050-51.

Dressler, William W., Kathryn S. Oths, and Clarence C. Gravlee. "Race and Ethnicity in Public Health Research: Models to Explain Health Disparities." Annual Review of Anthropology 34 (2005): 231-52.
posted by googly at 8:03 PM on November 5, 2007 [5 favorites]

LobsterMitten: So, nowonmai, when you say that genetic evidence shows that there are races, what do you have in mind by that term?

Maybe a study like this one.
posted by Gyan at 2:32 AM on November 6, 2007

Only tangentially related to what you're looking for, but a book I'd recommend anyway.
posted by pwb503 at 8:30 AM on November 6, 2007

Teaching "Critical Theory" ... Hmmmmmm.

Gonna be a bit critical and mention here that you are starting with an answer and trying to prove it scientifically by selective research! That is back to front. Start with a question and look at all the research (both for and against your preferred answer) evaluate and, from those evaluations, conclude ... AKA scientific method. Otherwise you are doing your students a dis-service.
posted by jannw at 1:18 PM on November 6, 2007

Response by poster: jannw: I'm teaching Critical Thinking, not Critical Theory. They are radically different topics, taught in different academic departments.

And to put your mind at ease, please accept my assurance that I understand how to think critically and I am seeking scientific articles and articles with facts about other race-classification systems, so I can teach my students how to look at them critically --I am not trying to indoctrinate them. I phrased my question as I did to prevent people coming in here and saying, without any evidence, "but there are no races". That is taught in a lot of disciplines but people then have a hard time remembering what evidence they were offered for the claim. I want the evidence, I don't want a rote repetition of the claim. A student asked me questions, I couldn't answer them to my satisfaction, so I asked here for resources to answer those specific questions. I will not be saying to the student "here's what you should think"; I will be saying "here are articles on both sides, let's read them and then discuss how credible the studies are, etc".

So do you have anything constructive to add, in the way of evidence one way or another on this issue?
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:47 PM on November 6, 2007

Response by poster: Site on race at University of Dayton
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:52 PM on June 8, 2008

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