From something as influential and honored as the James Randi Educational Foundation to something as irrelevant as this blog, there is a strong consensus among skeptics as to what we believe. Trips to almost every skeptic website will show the same doubts about conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, the paranormal, the supernatural, monsters, and aliens.
Disagreements are limited to certain aspects of a topic. Two skeptics may have different takes on why Reiki is the most prominent energy medicine, while the similar Pranic Healing is little-known, but both skeptics would agree that the treatments are equally worthless. The same skeptics may also have different views on why most chemtrailers have come to embrace this cause, but both would find the concern unfounded.
So it was noteworthy when I had my first experience of seeing a significant departure from the usual skeptic positions from one of our leaders. A past president of the James Randi Educational Foundation made a couple of posts stating he believed race to be a biologic concept, unlike the social construction most skeptics consider it.
I am all for considering new positions when given evidence, so I decided to engage the past president. I asked him to name the races, figuring this would be a good starting point and a reasonable request to make of someone who considers race a biological reality.
He never answered the question. He did, however, get into a pissing contest with a couple of more posters who joined my thread. I have extremely high expectations of someone who was the JREF president, and was profoundly disappointed at what transpired. He presented no evidence for his position and was content to belittle those who disagreed. In fairness, he didn’t open with personal attacks, the thread just deteriorated into it, and the other combatants weren’t exactly diplomatic. Still, it was unbecoming for someone of his stature. More importantly, I was unable to ascertain why he had adopted his position on race and what he considered evidence for it.
Had he dialogued with me, here is the point I would have raised. The most common supposed trait of race is skin color, which is directly tied to the intensity of ultraviolet light dependent on latitude. Put another way, someone’s skin color lets us know his or her ancestry relative to the equator. But while we see the color, we don’t see other traits that are distributed without regard to race. For instance, Belgians and Ugandans have very different skin color, but when it comes to the distribution of the ABO blood group, they are closer to each other than either are to the Chinese.
University of Michigan anthropologist Loring Brace has observed that such variations are distributed along geographic gradations know as clines. Attempting to categorize groups by skin color, hair texture, and facial features requires ignoring unseen differences that cross racial boundaries. While melanin follows a predictable pattern north and south, other clines spread out from specific points.
There are no distinct, non-overlapping genetic groups, and members of what are called races do not share the same genetic sequence. In fact, there is more genetic variation among Africans than in all other world populations combined. The Human Genome Project has taught us that people who have lived in the same geographic region for many generations may have some alleles in common, but no allele will be found in all members of one population and in no members of any other.
University of Iowa professor Angela Onwvachi-Willig said, “There is no gene or cluster of genes common to all blacks or all whites. Were race real in the genetic sense, racial classifications for individuals would remain constant across boundaries. Yet, a person who could be categorized as black in the United States might be considered white in Brazil or colored in South Africa.”
Similarly, the Irish were considered non-white in the 19th Century United States. And failing to include Hispanics in a separate category is inconsistent with the breakdown by skin color that otherwise defines race in the contemporary U.S. These examples show the subjective nature of these delineations.
A frequent question centers on afflictions that are more common in certain groups, such as sickle cell anemia among blacks. Such examples are usually a case of mistaking correlation and causation. In this instance, a mutation in the 11th pair of chromosomes is what causes the disease. This mutation originated in areas of the world where malaria was common since people with the trait do not get a particular strain of that disease. So the cause is not race, but rather an adaptation to a malarial strain.
In short, understanding the “Biological reality or social construction” issue requires getting under someone’s skin.